x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Sami Al Karim finds freedom in thought

We speak to Sami Al Karim, whose art making practice found strength in a rather unlikely place - Abu Ghraib.

A work from Sami Al Karim's Dream series. Courtesy the artist / Carbon12
A work from Sami Al Karim's Dream series. Courtesy the artist / Carbon12

Sami Al Karim's first solo show took place behind the walls of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, where he was incarcerated for three years in the late 1980s.

"There was a small layer of salt on the cement walls and I used a piece of wood to make the outline of my paintings," Al Karim says, as his solo show Rebirth opens at DIFC's XVA Gallery. "I had to erase the whole show before the morning when the guards visited the cells."

The artist was 20 years old when he entered the prison. A series of public artworks had raised the ire of the authorities during Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and he was jailed alongside other political prisoners. "That prison was my first university; the people around me were well educated and I learnt a lot from their critique of my work. Through them, I experienced the real meaning of freedom, hope and life," he says.

Four series are currently on show at XVA and they chart six years of the artist's developing practice. The Dream series from 2005, after Al Karim escaped Iraq for Colorado, is particularly poignant to those early experiences in Abu Ghraib. In these photographic prints, we see gaseous cloudforms as they roll landward across an indistinct ocean. Harking back to his early training as a painter, these softened, yet brooding colours have some Turner-esque echoes as they subtly mingle yet remain utterly distinct from the blackened sea. "Those images stayed in my mind from of a very simple dream I had when I was in prison," Al Karim says. "It came to me when I was trying to imagine the outdoors."

Like his brother Halim, arguably the more famous of the two artists and best known for his images of blurred figures with arresting and overly sharpened eyes, Sami Al Karim's work has manipulated portraits at its core. Defacement is a collection of assemblages of spliced-together photographs found at a flea market in the US. Despite the visual leads in these collages - such as a hunter's breeches, a bangled arm and a hand grasping statesman-style at a jacket lapel - we're still left trying to get a tangible sense of what's going on.

The Rebirth images, however, are a little more directive. In this lineup of women's faces, we see ashen aerial photographs of near-abandoned towns superimposed on their faces.

"These are actually the front line towns between Iraq and Iran," says Al Karim, who counters the suggestion that, despite the title of the works referring to some return to innocence, the maps appear like scars upon these faces. "We have to have the ability to learn and start from a point of destruction," he says.

These incidental monuments to one of recent history's most bloody conflicts are a reminder that time moves on. Scars remain and slowly fade but hope, according to Al Karim, persists and this is the rebirth he refers to. "I experienced that rebirth myself," he says. "Nothing is perfect. Life is not perfect. My dream has not been achieved 100 per cent yet, because I still see ugliness around me in this world. But this is just one drop in the ocean."

Until November 15 at XVA Gallery, Building 7, DIFC Gate Village. Visit www.xvagallery.com or call 04 358 5172.