Presented in collaboration with Ayyam Gallery, Man of War, was the first UK solo exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints by London-based Iraqi-British artist, Athier. Renowned for his iconic style that draws on a range of influences, from European Modernism to contemporary Iraqi art, Athier’s striking body of work explored notions of fluidity and the circumstances in which we become detached from human destruction, themes with profound resonance in recent Iraqi history.
Athier left Iraq before the first Gulf War in 1990 and has divided his life since then between London and Paris. The works in the show reflected his past, each canvas depicted a deft and imaginative integration of motifs, which include Mesopotamian and Assyrian symbolism, figurative abstraction and Islamic geometry. Elsewhere there were echoes of a pre-revolutionary Iraq, testament to the powerful and enduring sense of exile and nostalgia, which suffuses so much of Athier’s work.
The central symbol throughout this series of works was the Portuguese Man of War, a highly sophisticated ‘colonial’ organism, often mistaken for a jellyfish, which is made up of many separate parts incapable of independent survival. This creature exists without a central brain or what we would call thought. Yet it has perfected the ability to hunt, kill and destroy. Like a jellyfish, its movement appears intuitive, its abiotic form collapsing inwards and pushing outwards, creating the tenuous expansion and release that propels it through the water.
The paintings showed this fluid movement broken up and distorted by a rigid structure, which traps a diversity of life within its trailing tentacles. Subverting the concept of this marine life form is a reflection of Athier’s experience of watching warfare in the Middle East from his position of exile in the West. His dense, painterly compositions, replete with human teeth, hands, eyes and pockets of blood cells, echo both the kinetic energy of an explosion and the organic form of the Man of War, always on the move, homing in on its target, stealthily and with precision.
"I have always been interested in animals as symbols, especially those we choose to represent human behaviour. My previous body of work explored the symbol of the eagle and its association with power and national strength. For these new works, I have used marine life to represent air warfare, which has become a method of detached and remote destruction."
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