Private View: Thursday 9th June, 6:30-9pm
A woman stands between the reeds of a river clutching her child to chest. We see her as she glimpses over her shoulder, moments before she lays the child into a basket and pushes him downstream. The full moon hangs behind a low mist, casting a strange half light across the scene that feels both furtive and dreamlike. Are we viewing the painted memory of a real escape? Or an imagined one? Rivers Converging, Afifa Aleiby’s second solo exhibition with Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery presents a singular collection of paintings that explore notions of place and temporality. Drawing on personal memories, collective histories, social and political regimes, artistic movements and cultural identities, Aleiby creates highly compelling compositions that unravel deeper questions around how we represent subjective experience and form emotional connections.
Born in Iraq in 1952, the artist moved to Russia (back then, the Soviet Union) to study monumental art. On the completion of her studies, she found herself unable to return home due to political conflicts and moved first to live in Italy and then Yemen, before finally settling in the Netherlands where she still resides. In each place, she found herself drawn to the rivers, as a symbol of fluidity and renewal as well as a site of familiarity. ‘The water is constantly in movement, constantly changing and producing something new. To me, it became like a symbol of cultural exchange,’ she says.
While not all of the works in the exhibition visualise a body of water, they touch upon similar themes and evoke the same complicated, uncanny sense of frozen time. In the painting Florence, for example, a sculptural female figure stands in front of the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. One hand clutches the stems of flowers in bud while the other touches the edge of her pendant. Her hair is tied back with ribbon; her pink dress has slipped off one shoulder; there is a slight flush on her cheeks. The warm, golden tones suggest a soft light, perhaps early sunset, while stylised mounds of verdant green add to the sensuality of the scene. The bridge itself stands as a marker of place; in the artist’s words, it is ‘a symbol of the city and a witness to its beauty and grandeur,’ but it is also a nod to a more eternal sense of time, to similar scenes of romance repeating throughout history.However, here in this moment, the figure’s gaze suggests a more fraught emotional state. She is seemingly looking outwards at the viewer, but her eyes are distant as if seeing past us into a different time or place.While we might each interpret the scene differently, through the filter of our own experiences, we can relate on a more universal level to the feeling of detachment, of existing in a moment while at the same time feeling its passing as a loss.
Throughout, the paintings project a powerful sense of silence that seems, almost, to have its own physical presence and weight. It pulls the viewer towards the surface and invites them to enter into a deeper state of contemplation, without the distraction of noise or chaos. ‘I try to make something beautiful that people can relate to in their own way. I think it is very important for us to find time within ourselves,’ says Aleiby. That’s not to say, however, that the viewing experience is always easy. The darker tones and hostile environments of paintings such as Fallen Angel and The Silence of the Mountains evoke an uneasy sense of foreboding. In the former, an angel appears supine on a rocky surface, but while the limpness of their limbs suggests the fading of life, the shimmering whiteness of their dress, seemingly illuminated by a source of light, offers if not a sense of hope then an air of dignity, as if the figure is already in the process of being memorialised. In a similar way, the slither of an opening between the jagged cliffs in The Silence of the Mountains serves as a passage to a different place, where we can see hints of a pink and golden sky.
Though Aleiby’s work invites intimate, emotional engagement, it is never about an isolated experience. Rather, her complex characters and evocative landscapes direct us towards our shared humanity that transcends not only time, place and cultural boundaries but is also continuously complicated and renewed by the present moment.