Briefly greeting Mahmoud Obaidi following a tour of Fragments, his new exhibition at the Katara Gallery, Doha, it’s difficult to believe at first that the charming, smiling artist is the very same who, minutes before, moved cyclonically from piece to piece, a staccato volley of mordant commentary for each. But this is the strength of Obaidi’s work; he avoids those two extremes that so often render consciously political art difficult to stomach: po-faced earnestness or overly distant, and thus inappropriate, humour. Obaidi’s work is neither. Though always with a feeling of frenetic emotion (no doubt carefully considered), it is balanced: serious, sardonic, and tender all at once.
An Iraqi-Canadian who left Baghdad in 1991, Obaidi’s work is deeply political, and the works in Fragments are exactly as the title implies: shrapnel of catastrophic events, effective for their lack of wholeness or resolution, not only in form, but in concept.
In the life-size bronze sculpture Operation Iraqi Freedom Family (borrowing the US military’s name for the invasion of Iraq) Obaidi presents us with the “New Iraqi family”: a one-armed father holds his son’s hand in a pose whose easy warmth cannot hope to seem natural among the residue of violence, while his wife, also with one remaining arm, holds a pram carrying their severely disabled daughter. A reflection on the three million orphans and 4.5 million disabled of present day Iraq, the group is composed with the harmony of a family portrait. It is a picture of twisted normality, a statistically average family where, in an expression of darkest humour, the absurd decimal doesn’t need rounding to be accurate.
There is nonetheless tenderness to the piece, a human sympathy that Obaidi extends also to history, and to culture. On one wall of the gallery he has mounted replicas of objects looted from museums following the US invasion, illustrating a will to engage with personal and cultural tragedies as functions of a larger, national and even universal loss.
It is not often required to look much below the surface here – a model of the statue of liberty held in unbalanced suspension with one of the Great Mosque of Samarra is hardly cryptic, nor is a replica of Saddam Hussein’s statue caught permanently in the moment of its falling; however, the use of such ubiquitous symbols is not facile. Appropriating well known structures – recognisable to most of us only through broadcast footage (most of it American) – recalls key points in a complex historical narrative and, aided by the exhibition’s other installations, rewrites them. The terms may not be any more complex, but they are equally valid.
This is in any case a body of work concerned with the present and, whether by cutting irony or brazen irreverence, it doesn’t fail to snap us to attention. Chevrolet Door, for instance, is just that, a replica of a Chevrolet door from a US military vehicle deployed in Iraq. On the door a message reads: “CAUTION. STAY 100 METERS BACK OR YOU WILL BE SHOT” in text one could not easily read from twenty.
Less subtle are the portraits of George W. Bush. Following the “Bush Shoeing Incident of 2008, where Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his footwear at the then president, Obaidi created a series of sculptures and reliefs of the incumbent surrounded by men’s shoes in geometric arrangements recalling decorative Islamic art (in a democratic gesture he followed these with further pieces using women’s shoes). When Bush responded to the shoe throwing – considered a grave insult in the Middle East – by stating that he did not feel offended, Obaidi made a further tribute: a bust modelled in “dirt and faeces.”
Consisting mainly of paintings and installations, Fragments successfully constructs an emotionally complex perspective of a significant event and its aftermath, while, in frequently employing bronze as a medium, suggesting a future where Iraq may be cast anew, stronger than before. It is easy to ask of such a focused body of work what the artist will do when his stimulus is exhausted; but then it seems it will be some time before the Western powers’ catastrophic legacy in Iraq loses its relevance.
Ned Carter Miles
1. Mahmoud Obaidi, Fragments (2016). Courtesy of the artist and Marhaba.