Passion for Art
February 2012
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Selected works from the
38th Annual Fine Arts Exhibition
Hanaa Malallah moved from Baghdad to London four years ago. She left behind her teaching job at Baghdad University, her home and studio, her art collection and her stature as leading ‘80s Generation’ Iraqi artist.  She also left behind the threats to her life, the physical hardship, the fear. The last of her peer group to emigrate, she admits both to her reluctance of leaving her homeland and her surprise of how familiar London seemed once she had settled. More significantly, she feels that her practice has expanded notably since her arrival in the British capital. Numerous exhibition and growing interest in purchasing her work bear witness to this self-assessment.

We met up at her favourite local coffee shop south of the Thames, and, braving the cacophony of gossip and squealing infants, we settled in a dark corner at the back of the shop. ‘Away from the windows,’ she insisted.  Dressed in many layers of black, hair severely pulled from the square forehead, her serious face brightens in conversation.

‘I love London’ she smiles in accented but precise English acquired through diligent study over the last couple of years, ‘there are little reminders of Baghdad here, similar architecture, the red buses, the river which divides the city -- but mostly I love the museums. In Baghdad the Archaeological Museum was a source of much inspiration for me - for all of us - but its content was Iraqi/Mesopotamian. But when I walk through the British Museum, for example, I taste something truly global. Just sitting in its indoor courtyard and listening to the buzz created by the multi-lingual tongues like the ebb and flow of music … is that the global language?’

The conceptual contemplation of ‘the museum’ has played an important role in your work over the last two decades and has engendered a number of theories on the nature of abstraction and art history. How did this come about?

Up to the late 1980s my practice was academic, easel painting, figurative, and so forth; then it no longer gave me the freedom to express my ideas satisfactorily. I was 30 years old and I wanted to do Art with a capital a. I began visiting the National Museum - every week - which resulted in an installation documenting this. I created work in wood and cement based on the Waraka temple wall incorporating the original geometric patterns and colours: white and pink, terracotta. If we define abstraction as either non-representation or as the conversion of observed reality into patterns independent from the original source, then one could categorize this work as abstract, In my practice, however, the original source is an essential element of the composition process, so the term did not quite fit. Though purely abstract in shape there is awareness of meaning and historicity of the original, so I coined the term ‘significant abstract’ to take this knowledge into consideration. There is a spiritual quality of this perspective which has become increasingly important to my practice.

Does this not clash with your idea of ‘zero point history’? Could you explain this to me?

HM: No, on the contrary - it simply means that knowledge of the original source of an abstract shape is considered in the creative process and is reflected aesthetically and materially in the art work. What I call permanent point zero in art history is a concept that is best described in comparison with the field of science where knowledge progresses from a single point. Each new discovery renders the past obsolete. This system does not work for me in art where a discovery of merit may have happened at any given point in art history. Art is non-linear and thus permanently at point zero. 

Your second solo exhibition in 1993 expanded the concept of the museum as progenitor of contemporary ideas from the institution to the city.

After my first solo exhibition, with marked the beginning of the development of my concept of the Archaeological Museum as containing work of contemporary relevance and meaning, I expanded this idea to treating Baghdad specifically as ‘The Museum’.

I began my research in 1991 right after the opening of my first solo, which had received a lot of attention - ironically because Baghdad had been severely damaged during the 23 days of bombing by the US resulting in the closure of our museum. I just happened to open a show which I had prepared before this war in its aftermath.

So much had been destroyed, every bridge, all the important buildings were reduced to rubble. It had completely changed the face of Baghdad. I started photographing frantically and began to look seriously at the idea of destruction.

Shaker (Hassan al Said) had already pushed me to look at the damage of time as significant - he himself used it in his work. But now the destruction was real and all around me. Of course it reflected in my work. Also, for the first time I had become consciously aware of the presence of archaeological sites, ruins from antiquity, as part of the street scenes. I began to see Baghdad as a city of many layers of destruction and began to imagine its history in cross-section, a sort of cultural core sample. So I began to collect incidental material, ‘artefact’ from the city, bricks from broken pavement, etc and recreated it on the floor: a geography of signs, debris of human presence. As though creating an archive of the moment. Two wars had shown me how quickly the city could alter. At the same time it made me aware of the endless cycles of building and destruction Baghdad has seen since the 8th century when it was founded.

In any case, this is when I started to distress materials, something that is still integral to my practice.

Later you termed this method of distressing your material ‘Ruins Technique’, and defined it as a uniquely Iraqi aesthetic model.  You were not the only one doing this.

No, Shaker had used burning and destruction, but for him it was part of his theory of one-dimension. For us it became the defining idiom of the ‘Eighties Generation’.

When you use this term, whom do you include?

First, they are all artists that remained in Iraq during the Sanctions and up to the 2003 occupation, and second, all of them were in one way or another influenced by Shaker Hassan Al Said. The core group consisted of Kareem Risan, Nedim Kufi, Ghassan Ghaib, Nasser YaYa, Mohammed Shammery, Ahmed Modhir - and me.

You were the only woman artist? Was that ever an issue?

Yes, the critics mentioned that a lot at the time; they though my art was very masculine. Perhaps the fact that my work is strongly underpinned by theory … mathematics, logic … but I think there is no gender in art as such; there is only good art and bad art.

In any case, by 1994 with my third solo I was getting increasingly fascinated with sign, symbols and traces - the idea of obscuring or clarifying meaning. I began to refine my concepts which led me to take an MA in semiotics focusing on the icon - a sign with many attributions and meanings: the swastika, a Mesopotamian form, is a good example. I also began eliminating colour from my work.

What specifically motivated this reduction of palette?

I reduced colour in order to clarify for myself the meaning of pure abstraction. The primary element of abstract art is colour - there is blue, there is red. But I have many questions about colour. When there is green in nature, there are good reasons for it, but what does colour mean to my work? Really, I keep delaying a deep investigation of this question; it is very problematic for me.

Yet you current work, though it appears mono-chrome embodies a wide spectrum of hues.

Yes, but it is created by natural means, by the interaction of fire and canvas. This is important.

Let’s talk for a moment about your work since you have left Iraq. You’ve produced a large number of ‘paintings’ made by burning, tearing and folding of cloth, often incorporating found objects, objects from nature, etc. There is a sense of the hidden, the unseen. You have written about negotiating your practice at the intersection of multiple abstract symbolic systems - which eventually serve as models of reality.

All my mature work has been influenced by my study of semiotics, logic and mathematics. Wittgenstein’s theories of knowledge have been important in pulling it all together for me, completing a long education that was begun with Shaker. I compare Wittgenstein, especially the writings in his Tracticus to someone like Hallaj, where one sentence can give you the content of an entire book. Increasingly, making art has become a means for contemplation, a form of spiritual practice, exercise.

Literature on Iraqi art often cites your work as quintessential representations of the pains of conflict, destruction, the burning of Baghdad.

That is certainly an aspect of it - the war is part of me, I live with it every day. But over time, burning as a production technique has taken on different meanings. It is the element of fire and its ability to create a random language - shapes, signs, text, if you will and I enjoy reading it. It’s just another system. I believe there is a deep spiritual root in art. This is what connects all art: a permanent ground zero.

Christa Paula
in an interview with

"It is the element of fire and its ability to create a random language - shapes, signs, text, if you will and I enjoy reading it. It’s just another system."
Permanent Ground Zero