Artist Hanaa Malallah survived three brutal wars in Iraq, but in 2006, growing militia violence forced her out of the country. After six months in Paris, Malallah won a fellowship to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Since then, she's lived as a refugee in the UK—a country partly responsible for creating the chaos that forced her to flee.
Malallah is probably best known for her "Ruins Technique," which involves torching and breaking apart fabrics and found objects to examine the nature of destruction. According to a statement on her website, "Clearly, this technique owns its existence to the lethal face of war. This does not mean that I am reproducing the idea of war. Instead I am utilizing its intrinsically destructive process to engender the visceral experience of the reality of war irrespective of its geographic/political particular."
Although the work she makes this way is indelibly marked by war, Malallah doesn't label herself a war artist. Nor does she consider herself a female artist, nor a Middle Eastern artist; however, curators, critics, and academics stick Malallah with these tags quicker than she can rip them off. Malallah has undoubtedly had a highly unusual art career so far, but she wants to be judged as she judges other artists: on the quality of her work alone.
Broadly: Tell me about the "Eighties Generation" of Iraqi artists.
Hanaa Malallah: We were the generation of very young artists just starting to build ourselves, trapped between two wars (the Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988, and the Gulf War, 1990-1991), and under sanctions, banned from traveling. We couldn't travel to study, we couldn't travel for anything. We had teachers who had studied in Paris, London, and America, but we were trapped in Iraq. Everything was banned. We couldn't see any artwork from outside; there was no media, nothing. It was a completely isolated generation, and I'm part of it.
So what kind of people made up that group?
It was mostly middle-class; the institution was mixed (girls and boys), which it isn't now. But as a woman in Iraq, from the beginning, I had a very good life and freedom to study art from a very young age. I didn't feel there was any discrimination between men and women. I didn't struggle. I didn't marry: I travelled, I studied what I wanted to study, and I got my PhD [in Logic order in Mesopotamian painting]. I lived a very free life in Iraq.
We had teachers who had studied in Paris, London, and America, but we were trapped in Iraq.
But the situation changed in 2006, when you were forced into exile. Who forced you out?
Militias. I was a teacher at a university—a female artist, living alone, I had some money—it was too dangerous for me to stay there. If I'd stayed for another month, I would have been killed. There's no question about that. It was chaos. You could get stopped at a false checkpoint and killed for $1,000. I got a six-month scholarship to Paris with the Arab Institution. Soon after I left, my sister told me my home had been destroyed and to stay in Paris, or anywhere, but not to return to Baghdad. I came to London and got a fellowship from SOAS for two years, then stayed in London.
So coming from Iraq it's hardly a surprise you make the kind of art you do—the scorched canvases, the debris sculptures.
It's not! Iraq is a very tough country, it's a male country, and when I was there it was a military country. But I'm lucky – I had teachers who pushed me, encouraged me all the time. I'm really grateful to those teachers who studied outside of Iraq, who pushed me in this direction and supported me.
You've said your mother was your first teacher. Did you have any female teachers or role models in the art scene itself?
No, no. Almost all the teachers were male. There were one or two female teachers, but they weren't strong artists. They had talent, but they didn't have the same experience or the same energy. I was lucky to be taught by very professional artists and teachers, but almost all were male.
Do you think that's something that could change?
Well, you know what the situation is like now in Iraq. I visited last month and found it really dangerous—beyond imagination. I visited the institution, my studio there, everything has collapsed. There's nothing left.
Some labels are worthwhile, but female and male...? If you look at an artwork, it's good or it's not. I don't care if it's by women or men.
Will it be possible for young Iraqi artists coming through now to develop?
It will be hard. I've met artists in Iraq who are really brilliant, very good artists; they could even become great artists. Because of the Internet—which was banned under Saddam—they can see new things. But the system of teaching has collapsed. There's no one honest in Iraq to teach artists new techniques, and good artists have no opportunities to share their experiences. Even established artists in Iraq feel isolated. I'd like them to have the opportunity to bring some art over here, to exhibit it. That would mean a lot to them, to exhibit in London. And I'd like to take something from here to them, too, and do something in Iraq, just open the door for them, if I can. I'm not sure if I have the power to do that.
Is that group male-dominated, too?
No, there are many good female artists now. Two or three I met are teachers in the institution, and they're still young. They have open minds as regards new techniques. And there are four or five top women at the university, so the gender balance is quite equal.
You've said you don't like labels—
Art is full of labels, but I'd like to go without.
But even if you don't call yourself a Middle Eastern artist, or a female artist, other people must?
Of course, they call me the "leading female Iraqi artist" – but that's not true! I don't like it, but what can I do? Galleries have commercial agendas. "Women's Artwork"—big title. "New Middle Eastern Art"—that's a big title from a commercial point of view. But I think labels hold me back. Some labels are worthwhile, but female and male...? If you look at an artwork, it's good or it's not. I don't care if it's by women or men.
Has being a woman ever made it more difficult for you to exhibit your work?
I was never made to feel like that in my country, but I was once in London. I had my work rejected from a small gallery near Chelsea College of Art (where I had a fellowship); the owner told me I'd have real trouble exhibiting my work, because I'm Middle Eastern, because I'm a woman. He really put me down. That never happened to me in Iraq, but it did in London, in a country that is supposed to have liberal attitudes. That shocked me. In Iraq, from the start I had the same salary as men. All of us in the university have the same salary.
Hanaa Malallah is exhibiting at DOLPH until January 23. For more information, visit http://www.dolphprojects.com/