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Maymanah Farhat, Electronic Iraq, May 31, 2006

"Tarik and Athir," by Iraqi artist Athir Shayota, 1995

Three Arab Painters in New York is an art exhibition that features the work of three leading New York-based Arab painters. Samia Halaby, Sumayyah Samaha and Athir Shayota have been contributing to contemporary American art for decades and have exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the United States. Varied in style, technique, medium, scale and artistic influence, the three present a glimpse into the diverse and complex nature of the Arab World's art and visual culture. Three Arab Painters in New York provides the rare opportunity for the engagement of an American audience with Arab art that explores sociopolitical issues currently affecting the Arab world and its expatriates.

Three Arab Painters in New York will be open from June 3 through June 24, 2006, at The Bridge Gallery, at 521 W. 26th St. in New York City, the recent host of the "Made in Palestine" art exhibition. The show, curated by Maymanah Farhat, is sponsored by Al Jisser Group. An opening reception for the exhibition will be held on Tuesday, June 6, at 6:00 PM. Iraqi artist Athir Shayota, profiled below, joins Lebanese artist Sumayyah Samaha and Palestinian artist Samia Halaby in the exhibition.

Athir Shayota

Iraqi artist Athir Shayota, whose work is featured in "Three Arab Painters in New York."

Athir Shayota's Iraqi figures are guarded, showing no signs of vulnerability and displaying an intense indifference toward the viewer. They are captured in frozen moments in time. Refusing objectification with dignified and confident stances, his Iraqi subjects are positioned defiantly in front of the viewer, showing no sense of reliance on the viewer to come to his/her own conclusions. Shayota negates the Orientalist tradition of objectifying the "other." The use of Iraqi themes as subject matter serves as an act of defiance within the current political climate, an exemplification of Shayota's own political dissent in art. The portrayal of Iraqi figures in stoic postures, unaffected by the viewer's intrusive gaze, serves to counter Western hegemonic accessibility to Iraq.

Through a colorful palette and the painterly expressiveness of his oil paintings, Shayota creates referential paintings that utilize Western Modernist modes of aesthetic representation. As a means of challenging Western predominant notions of the "other" he paints portraits of the "other" as artists of the Byzantium period would paint icons. With the subject elevated to this status, and through the recognizable influences of such European painters as Van Gogh and Soutine, the viewer faces difficulty in placing these new images of Iraqis into the subordinate categories of representation that have dominated American consciousness, and are continuously reinforced by media stereotypes.

Consequently, Shayota's portraits have emerged coinciding with several pivotal events of contemporary Iraqi history.

The creation of "false" space further disrupts any interpretation or conception the viewer might project onto the Iraqi subject. This aspect of Shayota's paintings functions to accentuate the visibly present psychological currents within his work.

In Hanna Shayota, 1990, the use of Western Modernist modes of aesthetic representation is apparent as the flowers that adorn the portrait of the artist's father are a direct reference to Van Gogh's Portraits of Madame Augustine Roulin, 1889. Hanna's seated posture is also based on another Van Gogh, Portrait of Pere Tanguay, 1887, in which the Dutch artist employed Eastern modes of aesthetic representation through the use of a flattening technique that places the subject floating in the center of a composition framed by imagery from Japanese wood block prints. This allows for the figure to occupy a "false" space within the composition so that the environment in which he is portrayed remains allusive. "False" realities require the viewer's gaze to rest on nuanced aspects of the subject's figure, a difficult task in the case of Shayota's portrait, as Hanna confronts the viewer with his stone-like, tension-filled posture reminiscent of the stoicism projected by portraits of kings in Sumerian and Neo-Sumerian art (as seen in the statue Seated Gudea, 2100 B.C.)

"Hanna Shayota," 1990, by Athir Shayota

Direct references to the historical heritage of Iraq, as seen in the use of Mesopotamian imagery, is a common theme found in the work of many modern and contemporary Iraqi artists. With the continuation of the artistic heritage of their people, Iraqi artists preserve, reiterate and intensify the long and rich history of Iraqi visual culture, in turn projecting an unwavering sense of resilience.

Simultaneously, the sense of humanity that appears in Shayota's portrait of Hanna adds another level of complexity to the painting. The age and history seen on Hanna's face and hands, and the unsettled strain in the meeting of forms and lines within the rendering of his suit are the only clues that can be used to deduce the difficulties of Iraq's past and the almost foreboding of forthcoming events. This element overpowers the viewer, as the juxtaposition between stoicism and fragility has a perplexing effect.

With the entrance of Shayota's close friend Tarik into his paintings in the mid 1990s (amidst the sanctions against Iraq and the intensified demonizing of Arabs after the first Gulf War), a defiant and complex projection is intensified in Shayota's depiction of Iraqi subjects.

"The rampant racism and xenophobia against Arabs in America leads one to counter it and portray them sympathetically. But with both Battaween Meats, 1994, and Tarik and Athir, 1995, Tarik is not here only to be known or recognized. He looks away in both paintings and it is clear that although aware of the viewer, he is not much concerned about him."

"Self-Portrait with Umbrella," by Iraqi artist Athir Shayota, 2003.

Within his later portraits, 2003-2006, Shayota emerged with a different aesthetic, as living in New York required "illogical and forced spaces, text and numbers, and fragments." Cinematic influence also entered the compositions and mood of Shayota's work with intricate uses of abstraction to frame subjects that project an even greater mistrust for the viewer's interpretation.

"Although portrayed with compassion, those depicted reflect the violent world in which they live. In one painting the door opens but slightly, revealing half a head uncomfortably gazing at the viewer in front. In another, a self-portrait with an umbrella, no rain appears and the red background leaves all narrative ambiguous. In yet another, an Iraqi colleague poses for a portrait but is half obscured by the painter's shadow. Intentions are never clear and formal concerns override all others."

Austerity is created with the depiction of self portraits blocked and interrupted by abstract spatial elements, resulting in an even greater tension with the viewer than that seen in earlier works. With the American invasion of Iraq and the violent occupation that ensues, Shayota's portraits of Iraqis become increasingly defiant, refusing the intrusion of the viewer's gaze.

Exhibition Information:

Gallery: The Bridge
521 West 26th Street, 3rd Floor (between 10th and 11th Aves) New York, NY 10001
Telephone: 646-584-9098
Exhibition Dates: June 3-24, 2006
Open Tuesday to Saturday 11:00am-6:00pm
Admission Free
Opening Reception: Tuesday June 6, 2006. 6:00pm-9:00pm

Maymanah Farhat is a freelance writer and researcher of visual arts and culture, and is a specialist in Modern and Contemporary Arab art. This piece has been excerpted from exhibition catalog, Three Arab Painters in New York, which is copyrighted to Maymanah Farhat and Al Jisser Group.

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