I had the opportunity to attend the opening of the first Canadian solo exhibition by the internationally acclaimed multidisciplinary Iraqi artist Ali Eyal at SAW Gallery in Ottawa. It was a busy celebration of Arabic culture, with a DJ and a selection of Syrian food. As I entered the exhibition space, another story was being told: a reminder of the twentieth anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, told through Eyal’s own memories.

Eyal (b. 1994) creates works that tend to merge ordinary objects within a surreal dreamlike space. In this exhibition, a mix of drawings, paintings, and video installations were brought together to tell a story that explored his childhood memories of the horrifying events that took place in his hometown of Baghdad. I wandered through the space and contemplated the messages found in each artwork, and I left that day with a sense of gratitude to have experienced a story of remembrance, existing, and living.

Ali Eyal, Autumn solo show. And (2018, 2019, 2020), Huile sur toile, 21 pièces, 35 x 25 cm chq. (dont une pièce un peu plus petite) Photo : Ava Margueritte, Courtoisie de l’artiste
Ali Eyal, A depiction of things at the back of my head. And (2021), Huile sur toile, 100 x 120 cm. Photo: Ava Margueritte, Courtoisie de l’artiste

I returned to the exhibition a few months later, on a quiet day at the gallery. I was given a layout card that showed the flow of the artworks, guiding me through the story. As a curator myself, I tend to move with the flow of an exhibition through its narrative. I started at the entrance, exploring the artworks more closely. I sat with the uncomfortable emotions that came over me, emotions that I hadn’t had time to fully explore on the opening night. There were no labels or texts on the walls – a strategy created to provide a natural state for the space without the boundaries of the white cube. The walls were painted deep blue and the lights were dimmed, creating a sensation of dark, faded memories in a moody environment. The first unframed canvases set the stage through drawings, in which the artist’s hand guides us. One can sense an anxious state: nightmarish explosions and destruction are apparent, with a recurring theme of bulging eyes in the background. Are there trees, fog, or buildings in the distance? A comb appears in the corner, possibly an itch in the brain of suppressed memories resurfacing. Setting the stage in one image, random objects – scissors, a brush – provide a glimpse into the chaos, bulging eyes imagery, and a car appearing in the distance. Destruction is seen in the background reflected in a car mirror, or was it the head of the driver; meanwhile, hands are formed outside the frame of the head, holding it all together. Where was the artist? Was he in the car? Was he a witness? What happened?

On Tuesday February 28, 2023, I had a conversation with Eyal. I asked him about the recurrent imagery of the bulging eyes and what they represented; I assumed that they belong to a tree that witnessed and exposed the toxicity of the war.

“It’s a toxic plant,” he responded, “that is growing up on a fictional farm that references a real farm that got lost, a material that is consistent and linked as contamination. Where does it go when it’s forgotten, when it’s still in view?”

Ali Eyal, Other details were released from under the hair. And (2021), Huile sur papier, 84,1 x 59,4 cm. Photo : Ava Margueritte, Courtoisie de l’artiste

The fictional farm was starting to make sense to me, as I finally began to understand the memories. A cardboard box, in which Eyal plays with mixed media, had me wondering if this medium was all he had to work with. The head disappears as the brain takes over and becomes the landscape. The ears are showcased on the outside, providing evidence of destruction, perhaps a hint of the sounds that may have shattered them. The sounds of destruction and echoes reside inside the head as a caterpillar reference emerges. What happened to the environment, and what happened to the brain when the environment was destroyed alongside it?

In another artwork, a moment on the kitchen table appears, a child’s toy, a destroyed easel, and dispersed body parts. There is emptiness in this scene; was this the aftermath? We get a glimpse of the artist, a car crash reminding us of where he was placed; text and quotations can be seen a nod to resilience, a moment of reflection about what was and what is. Nothing is safe, everything is destroyed by these lost memories inside the head. And just as we spend time dissecting all the small details by following lines that lead us to connect the dots of what happened, we are faced with a scene of death in a garden, references to a national soccer team in the title. Is this the space of what once was, of people existing on this land? During our conversation, Eyal and I talked about this painting and the possibility of normalcy in the farm.

“There are a lot of things taking place at the farm, that I invented to fertilize the land at the farm, because it is not updated and nothing happened since all the farmers and family got lost during the war, I was thinking of how to extend this narration, and reclaim those stories,” Eyal said.

Vue de l’exposition In the Head’s Dusk d’Ali Eyal (2022-2023), SAW Gallery. Photo : Ava Margueritte, Courtoisie de l’artiste

The Blue Ink Pocket, and (2022), a wall-sized video projection, fills the back end of the space. Arabic can be heard as Eyal shares the story of his artistic experience that led to this solo exhibition. He opens up a wardrobe and takes one artwork out after another. Broken canvases show images of dismembered body parts, presenting the aftermath of a war not only on human beings, but on everything that they hold dear. The film forces us to think about the effects of war and how it alters landscapes and lives, as the artist remains anonymous, facing away from the camera and refusing to ever show his face. This work not only ties the entire exhibition storyline together but also provides a space for thinking about how difficult exhibitions are created and how artists who are impacted continue working and living in the aftermath. Despite being displaced from his home and his art, Eyal continues to create and survive.

As I engage with the “politics of refusal” as defined by Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson,1 I think about Eyal’s work as a refusal to be forgotten. He shows us the continuing aftermath of the invasion of his country through a memory that provides a glimpse of the damage that has affected the environment and displaced its people. I asked Eyal if he thought he was enacting refusal in this collection of works, thinking that maybe it gives him, the land, the artwork, and the insects sovereignty over their story. He shared with me the following story:“Yes, refusal does appear. Back then, they forced farmers to say fictional stories, my uncle was one of the people who refused, and he was imprisoned, which is why I’m using fiction as a powerful tool to reclaim narratives. A farm that got lost and is getting reclaimed. I refuse to show my face as well.” Eyal’s refusal to forget, to accept violent stereotypes, to ignore the destruction of the land, to allow his artworks to be displaced, and to show himself all play a role in this story.

Ali Eyal, The Blue Ink Pocket (2022), Vidéo en couleur et son, 11min28sec, Arabe avec anglais. Photo : Ava Margueritte. Courtoisie de l’artiste

1. Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures, no. 9 (2007), p. 67-80.


Ali Eyal: In the Head’s Dusk / علي عيّال: في غسق الرأس

Curator: Amin Alsaden / امين السادن

SAW Gallery, Ottawa

December 1, 2022 to March 4, 2023

The French translation of this article is also published in the 271 issue of Vie des arts – Summer 2023 and can be consulted here