His paintings make war look kind of nice, until you spot all the hidden darkness.
Athier Mousawi is an Iraqi-British visual artist whose first UK solo show is opening today at the Edge of Arabia. While it might be his solo debut here, Athier is no stranger to the UK art scene; on top of exhibitions in places like Beirut and Dubai, he's had residencies at the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. He was also born in Britain – giving him, by most people's estimations, a pretty strong tie to the country – and that mix of Western and Eastern heritage is reflected in his work.
This past Saturday, a cheerful Athier greeted me at the Edge of Arabia space in Battersea. Most of his pieces were already hung on the wall, and he was dealing with the lighting by the time I arrived (apparently he wants the whole show to feel like it’s under water). We found a little nook by some large windows and talked about the upcoming exhibition, Man of War.
VICE: Congratulations, this is your first UK solo show. How do you feel?
Athier Mousawi: I feel really excited. Yes, I’m Iraqi, but I’m British -- I’m a Londoner; I was born just a few miles away. So, for me, this is a homecoming. The last show I did was at the National Portrait Gallery, which was full of my paintings, but I put it in the bracket of the educational work cause it was done through workshops with Somalian and Afghani communities. This is the first real “me” show, which is all my work, my vision, something that I wanted to do from scratch.
How did this idea of the Man of War come into play?
Ideas like these always start from a small place, and then they grow and grow to the point where you become obsessed with them. I've always lived away from my homeland, and the main way I feel like I’m still a part of life there is by watching TV. You watch modern warfare happen on TV and, like many Middle Easterners here, we feel connected.
Over the last few years, the level of attachment has widened with the use of unmanned drones. Watching them gliding, they are so deadly, but also innocent in a way. I started making this parallel with the jellyfish in that neither of them have a central brain, but they both hunt and kill. They have a calmness of the body from above, but from below it's fear and destruction. I love making connections, and love the way that animals represent things. When I look at warfare, the fighter jet feels like a shark, the stealth bomber like a manta ray and the drone feels more like a jellyfish – it has no guilt in the way it destroys.
It's been said that you're addicted to conflict – how so?
It's not complete addiction, but I’m aware that, when you're from the Middle East, it kind of feels like talking about war is the highest form of intellectual stimulation, because it's so visceral. In the Middle East it’s really a current that runs through us.
Usually you'd expect darkness and bleakness from an artist depicting war, but your paintings are full of colour.
There's an old Iraqi artist, Hamid Al Attar. He was a friend of my grandfather’s and I remember meeting him when I was 14. His works were about his fear and feeling of entrapment when living under the Ba'athist party. He said his colours were vivid but poisonous.
As a studio artist, you also have to live with your paintings every day.
I want the whole canvas to feel full of hope, even if the message is a lot darker. I have fear and entrapments in pockets of the paintings – they are woven through secondary layers in the work.
If you had to live with only one of the works from the exhibition, which one would it be?
Well, if I had to choose one it would be "Man of War VII". It’s very big and explosive. I work in quite rigid forms – very planned-out colours, a designed structure – and I leave pockets for the characters and darker elements. You can see, in the details, hands, teeth and gas-masked faces. You can also see these circles there – they're blood cells. I’ve re-coloured them, changed them so that it doesn’t feel that direct.
Your work is influenced by historical art movements. What does contemporary art mean to you?
I love a lot of contemporary art, and I think it would be ignorant of me to assume that if I use modernist strokes it means something more important. My interests have been in modernism, cubism and Iraqi art. You just do what you do, but it stylistically developed that way. You can also see so much of where I come from [in my work] – my dad is an architect, my mum is a painter and I studied illustration.
"Man of War VII"
If you could collaborate with any artist, dead or alive, who would you choose?
It would probably be Kandinsky. Not to collaborate, just to learn from him. I would want to listen to him. His work was his way of understanding the world around him.
As part of your National Portrait Gallery residency, you did a project that included working with Middle Eastern communities, and you regularly teach kids at refugee camps across the Middle East. What do you think they take away from it?
I did start working for schools here in the UK and that was great. And from that I realised I could connect with people easily. My story was inspiring for second generation kids – they understood they could live with two cultures, like myself, and that working as an artist is something that can be attained.
And from that I started working with refugee camps in the Middle East through the organisation Start. It was similar, but flipped around. Rather than showing the British kids that the Middle East is great and trying to bridge that gap, with the Middle Eastern kids it was showing them that the West isn't all bad. A lot of them feel let down by the West, particularly the Palestinian kids who really don’t have many opportunities. They saw me as being this cross-between, and it was inspiring to them. When you're there, you're Western; when you're here, you are part-Western. Working with kids is something I am always going to do. I love it.
You're Iraqi-British and live between London, Paris and Istanbul. Which do you call home?
London. Really, geographically, London – although I guess my house is in Paris. My parents are here, although my dad is between the UK and Iraq, and my girlfriend is here, but she's now in Damascus. My centre of gravity, however, is Iraq. I guess you internalise home in a way. I love London – the people, the vibe – and I know first hand how much British institutions do to make multiculturalism work.
What's next for you?
I’m going to be building a studio here in London for Ayyam Gallery. Then I'm going to Kuwait to have a meeting with PAP, and then Art Dubai. And then back in London to do some work and have a holiday.
Sounds great. Thanks, Athier!
Man of War opens today and will run through to the 29th of March at 40 Elcho Street, SW11 4AU, London. Go check it out.