Article by Brigid Noone
Home is the place you left
The space Elyas Alavi has created with Derakht-e bi rishe (THE UPROOTED TREE) at the CACSA Project Space is a deeply personal one, housing artworks informed by stories and memories of the homeland he was forced to leave. Incorporating paintings on canvas and found newspapers, photographic imagery, a hand written letter and a frozen sculptural element containing his grandmother’s scarf, the exhibition as a whole operates as an expanded field of painting.
Memories of his younger years – of ‘leaving home’ as a refugee because of political upheaval in his homeland Afghanistan and the consequences of this move – inform a majority of Alavi’s work. It was a recent trip home to his village of origin in the Daikundi province that provided the specific focus for Derakht-e bi rishe. The opportunity to experience ‘home’ by walking on his land for the first time in so long provided Alavi a vast library of emotional and environmental fodder, and traces of this journey are throughout the show in both its literal and metaphoric content.
Found newspapers presented as a collection of clippings are adorned with thickly painted portions of meat, evoking both the open-air meat markets of Afghanistan and the values imposed by civil unrest, which can see people treated as little more than meat. Oil paint stains have seeped through and around these strangely tender works, serving as a sharp reminder of the violence of this created landscape, intimately referencing Afghanistan in all its brutality and beauty. Derakht-e bi rishe is not simply about Alavi’s physical home in Afghanistan; it is also about home – and homelessness – as an idea, a feeling, a principle. It is the artist’s ability to oscillate between these two realms, between the idea and the reality, that gives the show its emotional resonance.
In Political Emotions Martha C Nussbaum discusses the significance of personal narrative in apprehending abstract principles like that of ‘home’.
Real people are sometimes moved by the love of just principles presented just as such, abstractly; but the human mind is quirky and particularistic, more able to conceive a strong attachment if these principles are connected to a particular set of perceptions, memories and symbols that have deep roots in the personality and in people’s sense of their own history.
The strength of Alavi’s work lies it its ability to connect us to the abstract idea of home through the personal memories and lived experiences informing this body of work. “If the sources of memory are securely tethered to political ideas, however, such problems can be transcended, and the symbols may acquire a motivational power that bare abstraction could not possess”, Nussbaum writes. The embedded visual language Alavi brings to his work confers an instinctual understanding – Nussbaum’s ‘motivational power’ – of its emotional origin.
We cannot ignore that political weight and stark reality of the stories Alavi connects us to. Its emotional currency isn’t a device or a fashionable trope; it provides an entry point into the complex emotional worlds of human attachment and longing that displaced people negotiate daily. For many visitors to this exhibition, home may be a concept taken for granted. For second or beyond generation Australians, home traditionally alludes to family, local context and nationality, to structures which are designated at birth and often disconnected to an individuals desires or current status or placement in the world. For Alavi and those denied this experience of home, however, it is a more complex issue. Emotional homelessness can be felt anywhere.
To evoke this emotional homelessness Alavi activates processes that play on obscurity and multivalency, utilising figurative and dream landscapes to articulate the instinctive and the intuitive whilst maintaining the poetry of lived experience. In spite of their often challenging subject matter, the works in Derakht-e bi rishe are undeniably pleasing to the eye – beautiful and poetic. In his book The Bridge John Hutchens, director of the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, writes:
Why do we long for beauty? Buddhist and Sufis might tell us that the world of harmony is our real home and that we are born with love for it. Until we realize that this home is inseparable from our deepest being, we suffer from longing and yearning – which, in effect, are a kind of homesickness.
This longing and yearning – Alavi’s homesickness – fills the gallery, asking the audience to share in it, however briefly. When entering an exhibition space we bring our own stories, mood and willingness to feel and process what is displayed in front of us. Creating work that cuts through or influences these emotional states and histories is surely one of an artists’ greatest challenges, one that Derakht-e bi rishe takes up willingly.
There has been a developing strength and confidence building in a group of painters that could be termed ‘contemporary figurative painters of emotion’ — notable amongst them are Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, Elizabeth Peyton, Karin Mamma Andersson and Peter Doig. These artists are all aware of the historical background of painting, but have developed individual processes and styles based on the communication of emotional states, extending the impact of their work beyond a traditional skill base. Alavi’s work embraces the depths of the emotional painted surfaces, which through their loosely painted layers offer insight into the tension between the internal and external worlds we all negotiate.
Eric Fischl, in his essay A Meditation on the Death of Painting, explains:
There are certain qualities found in materials that can be imbued with the illusion that they embody consciousness, and paint is one of them. Painting is the investment of feeling, thought, vision, need, and desire into an object made by an artist who has done whatever was necessary to initiate identification with the object and the transformation that naturally occurs in the audience from this exchange. This is why art became synonymous with magic.
For Alavi, this identification and transformation of audience – this special magic – is woven into the idea of home. Artworks that tackle the deeply personal yet political experiences of the displaced person force us to imagine a reality of not being able to access one’s home, something so many of us take for granted. Alavi’s work bridges the gap between emotion and the conceptual, and shows how painting and installation draw on the past with an active personal-political position that can be entirely contemporary and engaging.
The economic style and paint application that Alavi employs in his painting varies, yet there remains an awareness of creating surfaces that ‘let the viewer in’. Smooth perfect surfaces in painting relate to the photographic, and can often be experienced as cool, creating a sense of distance. In contrast, Alavi creates controlled yet loosely constructed surfaces with confidence and an element of transparency. This style is more penetrable, the controlled looseness allowing for a sense of ‘handwriting’ and human error and giving us a tangible link into the realms of memory and imagination. Alavi’s remembered (faded) faces and familiar landscapes are not perfect, but this makes them all the more engaging.
Walking through Derakht-e bi rishe, we are reminded that we enter an exhibition space as if it is a created land; as the story of the work grows so do the bounds of the gallery walls. In creating this installation, which includes objects and an intentional atmosphere created in collaboration with the paintings on offer, Alavi invites us into a world where…. home is where you are.
photographer: Emiliano Fernandez