The Black Rain
The Iraq war has coincided with the timing of my project and has understandably preoccupied exiled Iraqi artists in particular. One of these is Yousif Naser who first fled Baghdad in 1979 and has been living in exile ever since, arriving in the UK in 1990 after periods in the Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Norway. Born in 1952, and a graduate of the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts, Naser completed an MA in Fine Art at Middlesex University in 2005. An anti-Saddam activist all his life, he was nonetheless detained when he first reached the UK until the authorities established that he was wanted by the Saddam regime rather than being a supporter." As far as exile is concerned, I'm an expert," he told me when I explained my project. We first met while the American and British air strikes were underway and he was working on his project Black Rain: Reflections on War in his studio in Ealing, west London. This war was, he felt, simply "the latest in a long line of catastrophes that have happened to my country since my youth" and he was driven by a compulsion, a sense of responsibility, to ‘do something' about it. ‘Doing something' for Naser meant to paint, and with an urgency that almost overwhelmed him; "it was as if each moment of delay on my part would result in another drop of blood."
But while Black Rain bears witness to the catastrophe of war in Iraq, it is also an indictment against the horrors and the miseries of all war for which, on the ground at least, Naser argues, there are no victors. Children, soldiers (foreign and local), civilians, the old and the young, all are caught up in the misery and human tragedy that is war. He is very clear that his work for the Black Rain project has no political motivation. It is a diatribe against war in general and neither anti- nor pro-American. "I check every painting and if I see even a hint of anything political, I take this painting to be a failure," he remarks. Nonetheless he is aware that while he can control the degree to which he actively excludes what he considers to be propaganda, he has no such influence over what viewers bring to his work and how they may appropriate it for their own political proclivities.
Naser's admiration for the German neo-expressionist Anselm Kieffer and the close links he had with Germany in the late 1980s (when he was a member of the Dresden Graphic Workshop) have influenced his own expressionistic approach (his work also evokes the Apocalyptic Landscapes of Ludwig Meidner, for example). He has little interest in pictorial realism. If his aim were to represent an event, scene or person accurately, he says he would rather find a photograph or use words to describe what was going on. He believes viewers of visual artwork need neither sort of descriptive approach. He is entirely concerned with conveying feelings. Naser worked in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon during the late 1970s and early 1980s as a graphic designer for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, producing posters and leaflets on health and environmental issues and also giving art classes to children in their youth centres and he has many personal memories of the many people killed and injured there. As a result, he has little room for entertaining what he considers to be the conceit of imagining that his paintings can ever come close to representing the horrors he has witnessed. He maintains that human pain is unrepresentable. No image can either capture it or give the viewer any sense of the totality of what scenes of the devastation of war look and feel like to its willing or unwilling participants (since looking is only one of the senses engaged when you are witnessing such scenes). What the successful visual image can do is evoke feelings. As an expressionist his aim is to communicate his sense of horror/fear/anger/grief on to the paper through the energy of the marks his fingers make; his role is that of messenger, of medium. He does not want to describe a war scene on paper in the sense of saying ‘this was here...that was there', these are bodies blown apart, these are buildings crumbling to the ground, but he does want to convey something of the horror that being part of such scenes invokes.
To this extent, his views echo those of Elaine Scarry who argues in The Body in Pain that physical pain can never be shared and is only ever fully apprehended by the sufferer. The reason that human pain resists representation is that, as Scarry puts it, although only inches may separate the body of the person in pain from the body of the person free from pain, they could be "cosmologies apart." While for the person in pain, their pain may be virtually inescapable, for someone observing them, the same pain may be fleetingly or inadequately apprehended, and even then, only with great effort and sustained attention. In fact, she argues that the only effortless action on the part of the observer lies in not grasping it (the distress that one may feel in the presence of someone in pain is not the same thing as grasping the nature of what their suffering actually feels like). Scarry also points out that part of pain's unsharability lies in its resistance to language - the words just aren't there. Pain thus brings about a reversion to a pre-lingual state; when we are in pain we moan and we cry, we sigh and we weep. These are the sounds that human beings make before they learn language and they demonstrate pain's power not only to resist but also to destroy language. Pain, furthermore, is also invisible; unless there are gaping wounds or other very obvious physical injuries, it is impossible to determine the nature of a person's pain. Even then there is no congruence between what is seen and what is being felt. The injury and the pain are two separate things.
Naser talks about the difference between the scream of pain (its manifestation) and the pain itself. The scream is the external face of suffering. Just as the war scenes shown on television screens and in newspapers may be visually accurate, they are nonetheless surface images; they cannot penetrate the emotional realities of those caught up in the chaos and the carnage. Descriptive but not expressive images, they enable viewers to see but not to feel what is happening, even if their personal experiences allow them to empathise, in varying degrees, with what is represented. For all that photographs can show burnt out buildings, bombs falling, injured children, weeping mothers, these are still the images of war, seen from the outside. They show the external face of suffering. Actual human pain is internalised, unique and, by definition, deeply private and individual. Its boundlessness can turn it into a person's entire world, absorbing and blotting out anything else from his or her consciousness. At the same time, however, despite its enormity, this pain remains invisible to the world outside. The scream of pain may be the manifestation of the pain but it is not the pain itself; they are two different things. In Black Rain, Naser has set himself the task of expressing the pain and not the scream, of representing traces of the unrepresentable, of rendering the invisible private world of suffering public and visible. "I avoided long ago the temptation to illustrate the scream but rather sought to express the pain," he observes.
His pictures are large and dramatic, full of thick, vivid and violent brush strokes. The scenes he sketchily portrays are chaotic and jarring; they erupt with an intense and painful energy. There are dark abysses of horror, devastation and suffering. Events are pared down and images truncated: an aeroplane tail, almost child-like in its execution, is the bombing plane, a single empty eye a human face, some leaves, a tree. Bombs hover menacingly, like giant fish, in the sky; a clumsy hand tenderly supports the head of a broken figure on the ground below. His expressive marks on the surface are less a narrative and more an evocation of an apocalyptic vision of the everyday trauma and misery associated with war; arms reach out between falling bombs (figures 5 and 9) and the horrors of mutilation and death are part of daily experience for all. Naser describes his approach as being about making "a very organised chaos on the canvas," calling it "an attempt to reproduce panic in a calm way." His colours are dark and muted; "how can your painting be bright and colourful, "he asks, "when your life is dark and lonely inside?" His relationship to his surface is intimate and personal; marks are erased, painted over or exposed and left as scars.
A year on, in the aftermath of the American and British invasion of Iraq, Naser continues to paint in the same dark tones. "There is still a lot of pain," he observes. Occasionally inlays of colour creep in, as for example in another untitled piece in his Black Rain series. Here Naser has inserted pieces of material: in the centre left a piece of bright nursery fabric, reminiscent of children's clothes or furnishings, and in the lower right a piece of black and white gingham, the kind of fabric used as simple table cloths throughout the middle east, both in the domestic and the café environment. These fabrics evoke the innocence and the carefree banality of everyday life. But the black ink that overlays the fabrics drains them of this innocence. Viewers are reminded that the everyday acts of watching children play and grow and attending to the niceties of the family table are luxuries that war precludes. Now they exist only as traces: fleeting and cloudy fragments glimpsed from memories of a life that is past, or that the darkness is gradually engulfing, or faint snippets, perhaps, from dreams of one that might yet be to come.
Naser is aware of another dilemma that creates a tension between his engagement in expressing this pain as an artist on the one hand and as a politically sensitive human being on the other. As he inevitably becomes absorbed in the process of painting, he finds himself brought short by the awareness that the production of the work itself is actually deeply pleasurable. "From time to time," he told me," I try to stop myself enjoying the work, enjoying painting about war. That's when I take a break and do landscapes." Thankfully, war preoccupies him but does not hold him entirely in its grip. Naser showed me a drawer-full of colourful landscape paintings that he "has fun with" when the burden of expressing the pain with which his country is afflicted becomes too much and he needs to turn to lighter things. Nonetheless, these bright sketches are not intended to be shown publicly, they are for his own relief only; his ‘work' remains centred on war.
In a collage (figures 8-10), the horror continues against a backdrop of daily events happening elsewhere. Using newspaper pages that date from the days of the war to paint on, some pink from the financial journals, some black and white broadsheets, Naser allows the viewer to reflect on parallel worlds: terror in the war-zone exists while global financial markets rise and fall, products are advertised, politicians make statements, crimes are committed, and TV programmes are scheduled. The world, it seems, is divided into places where national, community and family life goes on, immune - and seemingly oblivious - to those other places where the black rain falls and residents can expect a different daily agenda entirely. At a time, however, when an awareness of ecological as well as socio-political patterns of interconnectivity encourages a global perspective, the metaphor of black rain is particularly prescient. As western viewers, we cannot look away from Naser's images of Iraq, denying our involvement. We are all implicated and can expect to share the repercussions. To a greater or lesser extent, this rain ultimately falls on us all.