Private View: Thursday the 16th of June, 6:30-9pm
Armchairs, cupboards, cardboard boxes, cars and boats appear within vast grassy landscapes, set against misty orange, green and golden skies. These are liminal states where the boundaries between time and place, the conscious and the unconscious dissolve, where we might experience a sense of stillness and calm. Syrian–Swiss–Moroccan artist Houda Terjuman’s Surrealist-inspired works explore stories of displacement and loss, of transition and new beginnings. For herfirst solo exhibition with Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery London, entitled When Hope Smells Like Petrichor, Terjuman presents a captivating collection of paintings that contemplate the artist’s own personal experiences while also resonating with anyone who has found themselves caught in a state of in-between.
‘When I was a child, I literally felt as if I was floating between my various identities,’ says the artist. ‘I was not rooted in any place and felt as if I did not belong to any community. Being uprooted produces an underlying feelings of fear, loneliness and instability, but it also brings adaptation, open-mindedness, tolerance, empathy for the unknown, a sense of freedom and creativity.’ Art-making came to her, then, as both a form of release – a way of disentangling complex emotions and thoughts – and as an expression of solidarity with displaced individuals and communities across the globe. This particular exhibition takes its departing point from Terjuman’s childhood memory of spending summers in the Swiss alps with her grandmother and the smell of dewy grass in the mornings. ‘Smells and sounds are often vehicles of emotion to me,’ she says. ‘When I smell wet grass it brings me happiness, confidence and hope. ’ Indeed, in each of the paintings, the objects appear buried within or floating above soft blankets of grass that seem to melt into the horizon, conveying both a sense of expansiveness and calm.
Yet, there is something unsettling about these scenes. Absent of bodies or domestic settings, the furniture has an uncanny presence. In one painting, for example, an empty chair is turned towards a street lamp, while in another a pair of chairs appear translucent, fading like ghosts within a woodland illuminated by a strange, orange light. Meanwhile, cars appear abandoned, rusting and overgrown. We are left to wonder where these places are, where these objects came from, but while we might be initially unsettled by this sense of mystery, these are works that reward contemplation, seemingly unfolding before the gaze. This is, in part, due to the delicate details and careful layering of colour, but also owing to the artist’s use of symbolism to create a poetic visual language that evolves across multiple works. We might notice, for example, the recurring presence of tall, straight, slender palm trees, painted in gold. These, like the flowers growing from the cardboard boxes, are surrogates ‘for us’, Terjuman explains, or rather a tether to our past that is alive and luminous, that can and does continue to coexist within our present.
In some of the paintings, the background itself is painted gold, creating a flat, glowing surface on which pieces of land appear floating. One work depicts an abandoned house with two trees growing through its roof, while another portrays a ship half-buried within the earth. These ‘floating’ works explore feelings of rootlessness and the search for stability while the gold paint makes reference to the dream of El Dorado, a lost city of gold. However, rather than focusing on the idea of material treasure or wealth, Terjuman imagines El Dorado as a state of mind, where we are able to find hope and prosperity in the uncertain.