Asad Faulwell’s Bed of Broken Mirrors is about Danièle Minne of the Algerian War of Independence
She stares with hollow eyes and a stony complexion, yet wears a vibrant crown of colour and pattern. Under close inspection, she is bound and bleeding, but, from afar, she could be simply shrouded in regal robes. Hanging in the middle of the back wall of Lawrie Shabibi gallery, she is slightly off-centre in the canvas – her many contradictions capture the effect of the whole show.
The woman in the painting is Danièle Minne. She is French but fought alongside hundreds, if not thousands, of Algerian women in Algiers in the war of independence between 1954 and 1962. She was 16 years old when she joined the Algerian resistance. Like many women, she could pass through checkpoints unsearched and so she carried arms and became part of an undercover female army that, towards the end of the war, were the sole combatants.
With the help of her parents, who were sympathetic to the cause, Minne carried out two bombings and along with several other women, she was captured, tortured, sentenced to death and after seven years in prison, she was eventually freed – in part due to continued pressure from leading intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Satre.
Later in life, she moved back to Algeria and eventually became a professor at the University of Algiers. But immediately after her release, she conducted interviews with as many women as she could find and wrote a biography about them. It was that book, Des Femmes Dans La Guerre D’Algérie, that was the starting point for this series of paintings titled Bed of Broken Mirrors – although it took the artist Asad Faulwell more than two years to find a copy of the book.
“That just shows how little information there is about these women,” he says. “It took me so long to find the book and I’ve never seen another copy. The women were basically forgotten by their society and, eventually, by history. I was drawn to their story as individuals, but also on a wider level about postcolonial movements, how they rise and fall and how the history continues to replay itself long after the colonialists have left.”
Minne is one of a handful of real-life characters upon whom the paintings are based. Faulwell has given them all the same haunted appearance, removing their eyes and replacing them with pins or simply leaving them as black holes.
“It gives them an emptiness so that they are frozen in time rather than being alive,” he explains. “This way they also become symbols rather than simply individuals.”
Like Minne, they all also wear the distinctive colourful crowns, which could also be construed as halos.
“I’m interested in political movements and religious movements and the way people portray power or give importance to figures, especially in art. I also take a lot of reference from the ordered patterns of traditional art forms.”
The paintings are marvellously dense, leaving the viewer entranced, continually discovering new elements. They are made of collage, from cut paper patterns and repeated photographic images and aside from the acrylic surfaces, they are given depth with droplets of high-gloss paint and pin heads, arranged in meticulous patterns.
There are flower garlands entwined across the works with sharp thorns and, in many, the sun beams down from the top – not necessarily life-giving, rather just reflecting the harsh realities of their experiences.
In the largest painting of the exhibition, simply titled #36, Minne appears again. This time as a small, nude figure, limp from being tortured, hanging on a chain from the wrists of two of her former comrades as they are being released from prison. The images of Minne and her two comrades are from real photographs that Faulwell acquired through his years of research and he explains that the larger canvases tell the story of the relationships between the women.
“Here, they are supposed to be celebrating their freedom, but instead they are carrying Danièle and the weight of all that sorrow, which continued to affect them for most of their lives,” he says.
So, the exhibition, with a title that describes the impossibility of these women to gain enough distance from their traumatic times to be free of them, tells their story but also one of weakness and power.
• Asad Faulwell: Bed of Broken Mirrors runs until February 12 at Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai. For more information, visit www.lawrieshabibi.com or call 04 346 9906