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Hits at misses
by Muhammad Yusuf February 06, 2014
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Dubai Gallery Lawrie Shabibi is currently hosting the Asad Faulwell: Bed of Broken Mirrors exhibition. It is Faulwell’s first solo show in the gallery (Jan. 11 – Feb. 12) and is a presentation of his celebrated ongoing series Les Femmes d’Algers (The Women of Algiers).

In this series, Faulwell wryly references the French Orientalist painting tradition, in particular Delacroix’s famous 1834 painting of the same name and Picasso’s 1954 homage to it. Whilst those artists depicted Algerian women as exotic, sexual objects, Faulwell draws his inspiration from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, paying homage to their largely forgotten legacy: their fight against French.

occupation during the 1954 -1966 Algerian war of independence. Over ten thousand Algerian women fought as equals alongside the men, operating clandestinely and often forced to renounce home and family as well as giving up their lives.

These women were recruited because they could pass through French checkpoints more easily and could navigate the French quarter of Algiers, without drawing suspicion. Almost all of them were captured and arrested by the French and a few were killed in battle.

Those who were captured were subjected to brutal torture and sentenced to death, before being pardoned at the end of the war. They returned to Algiers — only to find it incredibly difficult to integrate back into society.

They were labelled by many as tainted, since they had spent so much time with men and had been tortured by the French. They found that women’s rights in Algeria were eroding. Some of them stayed in Algeria and campaigned for women’s rights while others ironically ended up moving to France. Whatever their ultimate condition, there is no doubt they thought they were staking their claim for equality in post-colonial Algeria by doing their part for independence. For Faulwell, they are warrior women.

What gets his back up is the Western conceit to present Middle Eastern/North African women — in fact all Muslim women — as oppressed, exotic (think belly-dancers) and even lazy, with a twist of cruelty (think suicide bombers). This quaint tradition has a hoary past.

It perhaps began with Ingres’ Grand Odalisque (1814), with its focus on a slave or concubine. Elongated and distorted limbs, especially around the pelvic region, and a sensual pose, are its special features. The painting “betrays no feeling”, it is said. Ingres never travelled outside Europe, but read travel accounts and made many pictures of odalisques from his imagination.

It was then the turn of Delacroix to try his hand at the same theme. He spent six months in Morocco, with a spell in Algiers, and painted Les Femmes d’Algiers in 1834 and another version in 1849. Its imperialistic intent is remarkable — though its purpose is avowedly Romantic. Picasso, not to be outdone, studied both Ingres and Delacroix at the Louvre, before creating 15 variations on the scene in 1954 – 1955.

Faulwell, on the contrary, finds his Muse in Pontecorvo’s creation. The sympathetic treatment of the FLN (National Liberation Front) in The Battle of Algiers often dismayed former French colonists of Algiers and French army troops. It was banned there for five years.

Born in Idaho, USA, to an Iranian family, Faulwell’s style draws deep on Islamic traditions — but he treats his subjects in a contemporary context. The geometric patterning of carpets, the gloss of ceramics and the decorative aspects of Iranian illumination, shine in his work. In his current show, the women — whose enormous contributions he insists should not be forgotten — are both horrific and beautiful.

He incorporates their photos to give a touch of reality, and places them in flat, colourful and patterned backgrounds. The skin is ashen and the grey tears and streaking lines going out from their punctured eyes and shapeless mouths are not of human figures; they are searing statuaries of what once were women. The despoliation they were subjected to and the determination they faced them with are evoked brilliantly, particularly seen in the glaring contrast of colours.

The colours are highly saturated and the works are richly detailed. Faulwell will not let go of anything, if it adds to the narrative. His treatment of his subject matter is savage; the paint is thick and the collage is verdant. The order and chaos, symmetry and disjointedness, are thriving parts of the whole.

The works reference Islamic, Jewish and Christian art, as well as contemporary methods of painting, digital media and embraces elements of abstract painting. There are echoes of the Pattern and Decoration (P & D) movement too, a school which arose in the West in the 1970s. But Faulwell is not content by just throwing a pot of paint at the Orientalist creed (P & D was a revolt against Western aesthetics); he has a long, historical axe to grind.

His works explore the relationship between political and religious faith, seen in the Middle East, post-World War II. He fixes his keen eye on history and historical figures, in an attempt to set right blatant wrongs. He glorifies the heretofore untold and forgotten stories of Algerian women, and breathes intense life into their sacrifices.

His roll-call of honour include women like Meriem Bouattour, a nurse and weapons transporter for the FLN who was killed by French soldiers in 1960 at the age of 22; Ourida Meddad, a weapons transporter for the FLN who was killed by French soldiers during a battle that took place in a small village; Djamila Bouhired and Djamila Buoazza, both of whom carried out bomb attacks in Algiers and were captured and tortured by the French, sentenced to death but later pardoned; Danielle Minne, a French women who was the youngest of the female bombers; and Zohra Drif another bomber, who was eventually pardoned.

While in his earlier paintings he focussed on individual women, in his latest series he often combines two or more, weaving together aspects of their lives within a single composition. His work commemorates the largely unsung figures; the repetition of images and the quasi-religious imagery employed gives the compositions the air of devotional shrines. What artists of earlier generations thought fit to scoff, Faulwell has found fit to revere.

Asma Al Shabibi, Director, Lawrie Shabibi, said that “Faulwell tackles an original and emotive subject, vibrant with intricate designs. There is tension there between something very beautiful and melancholic”.

Faulwell was born in Caldwell, Idaho, in 1982 and currently resides and works in Los Angeles. He graduated from UCSB in 2005 and Claremont Graduate University in 2008. He has exhibited at The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas; University Art Museum, Long Beach, California; Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, California; Nassau County Art Museum, New York; Kravets/Wehby Gallery, New York; Untitled, Miami; Rogue Wave at LA Louver, Los Angeles; Josh Lilley Gallery, London; and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, among others. His work is part of many private and public collections, including The Oppenheimer Collection at The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City; The Rubell Collection, Miami, The Franks-Suss Collection, London and the Jiminez-Colon Collection, Puerto Rico.

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