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Memories of Chairs

A chair, regardless of variations in colour and design, is a piece of furniture consisting of a seat, legs, back and often arms, designed to accommodate one person.

It could be a seat of office, authority, dignity, contemplation, resting, waiting, detainment and execution. Meaning of word and relation between language, picture and referent or relation between object, visual and verbal references (denotations) have been studied and analyzed thoroughly by many particularly Wittgenstein and Goldberg , through their different points of views.

There are many chairs in the world; thus only those actually used can be described, those chairs not used would not be analyzed. There are two ways of thinking about the meaning of chair.

1 - The Extension of the word Chair includes every chair in the world.

2 - The intention of a general term, on the other hand, is the set of features which are shared by everything to which it applies. Thus, the intention of the word chair is something like a piece of furniture designed to be occupied by one person at a time. It is very much related to status of our physical existence. In monotheism, reference to a throne is a metaphor for absolute power.

The Memories of Chairs is an attempt to reveal the prints of feelings and emotions left behind on these chairs-objects that once physically supported and bore the weight of individuals who are now gone.

Ala Bashir

Ala Bashir, Al-Adib Publishing House, 2013

Repetition and Difference Ala Bashir’s Memories of Chairs

Prof. Douglas Tallack
Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) and Head of the College of Arts, Humanities & Law University of Leicester, UK

These new paintings of chairs develop Ala Bashir's interest in repeating, but also varying, a few motifs across a large number of paintings during his distinguished career. The raven, the key and, most compellingly with these latest paintings, the chair, dominate many canvases or, sometimes, they appear incidentally. Occasionally, as in this exhibition, these motifs meet. In Waiting Chair six raucous ravens perch incongruously on the back of a mundane plastic chair. In Suspense an ornamental chair seemingly awaits the raven which appears in the paired painting, Reflection. In Revival the visual echo of a key wrestles with the seat and legs of an upturned chair.

Ala Bashir is, himself, well-read in philosophy, and two theoretical perspectives can be of some assistance in responding to the paintings in Memories of Chairs - because we do need some assistance when looking at these striking and enigmatic depictions of an object in daily use and present in most built environments. The ideas associated with Russian Formalism arose from the fervour of the late 1910s and 1920s in the USSR. Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, among others, and Roman Jakobson, a Russian émigré who later dominated the Prague Linguistic Circle, went against the political grain and sought to define the art-object, and to distinguish practical and poetic "language". In the same period, but writing in the cultural mêlée of post-World War One Vienna, Sigmund Freud pioneered a different approach to the confluence of the familiar and unfamiliar in his 1919 essay, "The Uncanny".

Rather than treat art as a reflection of the world, the Russian Formalists explored the ways in which artistic technique can defamiliarise; that is to say, how art can wrench perception away from its habitual assumptions and make strange even everyday events and objects. Jakobson, for instance, refers to «organized violence committed on ordinary speech». For reasons apparent in The Insider: Trapped Inside Saddam's Brutal Regime, Ala Bashir's work is often interpreted in the context of Iraq's turbulent recent history. However, an appreciation in formalist terms, initially at least, has much to recommend it. In Temptation, the slats of the seat of a chair are ripped upwards, while the back of the chair is squeezed and strained by being bound by rope. Bravely, the chair struggles with splayed legs to stay upright and perform its normal function. Similarly, in Relationship, chairs are stacked, yet the legs and struts multiply, gesturing towards many more chairs than can actually be seen. In the foreground, a black cat stares at this articulated violent confusion, as though trying to make sense of objects which normally offer comfort to cats.

Memories of Chairs is an exhibition of oil-paintings dating back to 2010 by Ala Bashir. However, when these works recall - as they cannot but do - the many other chair-paintings from his career, another tenet of Russian Formalism proves to be useful. Although preoccupied with aesthetics, so much so that they inevitably ran into trouble with Stalin for anti-revolutionary tendencies, the Russian Formalists were actually deeply committed to analysing how art intersects with the changing circumstances which continually co-opt it for political but also commercial purposes. It is this dynamic engagement which helps to explain how art can change and be renewed: new techniques evolve and new and, at first, strange angles appear, in intense and critical dialogue with previous forms of artistic expression. To put matters colloquially, it is difficult to imagine sitting on Bashir's chairs from earlier in his career, but one would sit differently but with just as much difficulty on the chairs depicted in these new paintings. We recognise these objects as chairs, but we cannot take them for granted. They are foregrounded, to borrow another central concept for the Russian Formalists. Much the same sharpened perception informes the iconic chairs of Modernism, for instance those designed by the Bauhaus School.

That Ala Bashir has been drawn to the idea of “memories" of chairs should remind us of the positive attraction of chairs, and the place of chairs in different cultures. We have favourite chairs, remembered for the physical and emotional comfort that they offered and offer. Although there are few signs of comfort in the chairs depicted, it is the memory of what a chair can positively provide that struggles to survive how a chair has been used in other circumstances to exert power over individuals. Andy Warhol's multiple versions of Electric Chair are shocking because it is a chair into which the condemned prisoner is strapped.

Here, we should acknowledge the great insight into the uncanny which Sigmund Freud explored: how the un-homely - das unheimliche - shadows or lives in the homely. The inter-twining of attraction and rejection are an effect of repetition. And so much of life is necessarily repetition: we cannot but use the word "chair" to describe these objects, however different they are within that linguistic category. Yet the exercise of repeating an ordinary word --"chair" or, most disturbingly, our own name -- over and over provokes a recognition of its strangeness, and of the paradox of visual as well as verbal language: that competing meanings can occupy the same space. Although not evident in these paintings, it would be interesting to push this point, and to know whether Ala Bashir has confronted one of the ramifications of the uncanny which interested and troubled Freud: that repetition and difference, the familiar and the unfamiliar and other such pairings can find expression in the phenomenon of the double, in which our other, repressed self challenges our conscious self in the same physical space.

It is, then, the combination of the familiar aspects of chairs -- the comfort and reassurance they traditionally offer -- and the strange dimension imparted by Bashir's compositional techniques that gives these chair paintings their disturbing edge. How could one possibly sit, let alone rest, on the alarmingly tilted chair in Blue Shirt, even if one could cope with sharing it with a shirt that seems to be alive, if partly strangled, in its contortions? It is particularly important, with Bashir's work, and its all-too-recent context of the Saddam dictatorship, not to read into new paintings over-determined meanings deriving from the terrifying images of torture in some of his earlier work. There is a comic and bizarre side to these new paintings which should not be overlooed. Nevertheless, the inhospitality and basic discomfort of the tilted chair in Blue Shirt, the shrouded chair in Obscured, and, more explicitly, the curled-up, naked female body on a green wooden chair in Folding Body do evoke the conditions of the torture room.

Waiting Chair shifts the mood, again, to the quotidian, giving us an object which is depressingly familiar from countless waiting rooms or cafeterias. The perspective seems to be all wrong, though, with an upward-sloping back wall. And, in Reflection, why has this otherwise well- proportioned and upright chair been pushed up against a wall, which it faces? Even the raven has to look away from the blank wall. On the other hand, having imagined ourselves on that chair, facing the wall, it dawns on us that the chair, itself, has assumed an anthropomorphic quality, with its two "eyes" staring back at the viewer. These chairs inhabit a world in which, after a while, the appearance of a raven on a chair seems to be no more surprising than the on-looking black cat; or in which the merging of a human body (but with many legs) with a wooden chair in Hesitation seems to be quite normal. These are not symbolic chairs, in the traditional sense of a symbol embodying an organic totality. But they are freighted with associations. Those paired ornamental chairs in Suspense and Reflection can also connote a woman's corseted body, and, once that suggestion in set loose, one is left wondering whether the arrival of the raven in the latter hasn't provoked an all-too-human reaction in the chair: irritation, a smile or even excitement?

Keys to a Fragile Sense of Security

Kefah al-Habib
Iraqi Writer

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ala Bashir dealt with a myriad of ideas, the crux of which revolved around the concept of life and death. He chose an apple and a crow as major symbols to adorn his map of iconography and to personalize his artistic approach and representation. In his latest exhibition, Bashir gets on at a fast pace to reflect on another crucial concept and to lay out his philosophical position. The new notion, this time, is the individual's sense of security, where he sets out to turn such a universal concern into a sensible and visual reality that has the power to penetrate deep into our conscience. In his ongoing creative quest to uncover the covert and implicit codes of life, and the complex and interrelated systems imposed by nature, Bashir adapts the "key" as his new iconic image. In that, he relentlessly taps into his wide imagination in an attempt to interpret the constant anxieties over security, and whether it can be realized individually and collectively. Most of the work in this exhibition refers to human beings, individuals and groups, depicted as keys in a variety of postures. His major objective is to crystallize the idea of security, which has become overwhelmingly present at the core of the artist's conscience. Such unease with the idea of security took a sharper turn in his mind as he has been living in the heart of a bustling modern world, and enjoys the availability of stable security conditions, juxtaposed with many unsafe places he constantly thinks of.

From here on, Bashir returns back to the beginning, the early moments of human existence, and the struggle for survival. The depiction converges into either an embryo in the womb of its mother, or a prehistoric individual whose sole concern was securing food and shelter and steering clear of perils and dangers. Both scenarios were characterized by the absence of all other life complications which were introduced later on throughout the turbulent and complex march of human history.

The interdependence in the components of the key-security concept is vividly echoed on the surface of the paintings in this exhibition. It is presented as a reflection of those harmonious repetitive forms of the key and its visual transformations. The extent and shape of the spaces on canvas, as well as the dim and dusty colours bear witness for a stressful mood, and leave no room for optimism. But it is a genuine reflection of the artist's keen sense of threat, in which he blends the panic of surroundings with anxiety of survival.

Technically, Bashir tries to portray his vision using two levels of simple visual depth. His paintings are not crowded with elements and masses, nor characterized by any kind of graphic complications.

His approach simply restores the pictorial technique of Still Life painting, especially in its composition of two layers of perspective. The first layer is abstracted as mass into a key, moving keys, or even figures in the foreground, and the second is often an opaque background divided into two coloured surfaces. It sounds that, in this endeavour, Bashir wants to get the process of expressive painting to go back to its first technical roots. The justification can very well be to support the thought of getting the human being back to his early formative environment, when man had sought shelter in caves for his own security. With such kind of creative methods of identifying unconventional ideas, Bashir forges his own interpretation of the function of visual art.

This thematic exhibition may raise the following question: Is it possible for the man of modern times to feel safe, even though he enjoys the availability of the best types of security systems and electronic locks? It seems that for a significant and timely topic such as this and for its implications on our contemporary living and the risk it carries, Bashir is raising an important question and may stir some robust and fruitful discussions.

I have spent the last thirty years following up the development and changes in Iraq's contemporary art scene, starting from the contributions of the pioneers during the second half of the 19th century, down to the late innovations by the current generation. I could not find any other artistic experience that can ignite the sort of controversy as much as Bashir's experience did. On one hand, his art attracts audiences of different colours and shades, only for its capacity to preserve an artistic vision capable of contemplating the human existence throughout history. On the other hand, his artistic treatment can intrigue creative professionals and critics, who may see a unique example of raw expressionism, especially regarding the manner in which the artist introduces his outlandish but extraordinary vision. However, the most remarkable sign here is Bashir’s ability to surprise the art community with his existential concepts and approaches and his simple and straightforward artistic treatment. Last but not least, Bashir takes the credit for redefining and shifting the aesthetic impulses common in the mind of every visual artist. He replaces them with his passion and drive to tackle higher order issues revolving around the human ability to point out to their flaws, and admit and repent their sins. In the midst of his daunting task of dealing with deep philosophical issues, it would be natural to see him paying less attention to how to construct a visually stunning and highly crafted image.

Prague – 2010

The Sculptures of Ala Bashir
Only Love Can Destroy Death’s Kingdom

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra
Iraqi Writer

In his new clay sculptures, Dr. Ala Bashir has worked a miracle the like of which one can scarcely find anywhere else. One could hardly have expected it even from his own highly skilful hands.

After this bulk of woks produced in a matter of eighteen months, Iraqi sculpture has taken a sharp turn, which will make us as of today look at every other work and ask whether it was produced before or after these amazing sculptures were made.

They begin with the premonitions of mass destruction which seized the whole nation, and go on to an experience of horror, one of the worst in human history, in order to express in potter's clay what millions of words could not express; something elementary and primal that might date back to man's experience in his earliest and most primitive times. And yet so experience to the great heights of his tragedy and terrifying transcendence, in an age of seeming progress and civilization.

In these small sculptures are condensed the passions of man in their most violent form, in their most shattering intensities of horror and death, to arrive at their most violent form in the feelings of love prevailing over horror and death.

I know of no artist who could in some seventy works, succeeding one another like so many chapters in an epic, portray man's penetration, in an age of genocide and barbarism, to the very heart of the universe, in order to put in concrete form that sweeping mysterious sense of the oneness of all existence, whereby man's salvation will be realized.

It is in fact an interpenetration of animal, bird and plant, of man with man, of body with body, of head with head, of face with actual face.

Here we have that absolute identification with all that God has created, that absolute fusion into all that God has made.

Here is beautiful seduction and the equally beautiful surrender to it, with the crow, ever latent in the experience of men, turning it's croak, in order to save mankind, into a final song of love.

The cry in these works is indeed a dominant theme: mouths cry, beaks cry, the whole world cries. It is a cry from the depths, and the crow cries out together with man with many mouths and many tongues. Walls crumble, wreckage flies into the air, but in the end an all - powerful urge works its way through rock and ruin in the direction of love, which alone shall end all crying and destroy death's kingdom.

For more than thirty five years we followed up the creations of Ala Bashir as he developed his tragic vision through line and colour in large paintings, noted for their vast spaces suggestive of immeasurable depths and distances, the depths and distances of dreams and nightmares. Suddenly, through the terror of savage air raids and missile bombardments intent on dehumanizing man, the murdered as well as the murderer, we see him resort directly to ceramic mud : in his spontaneous reaction, he shapes it up, cogitates through it and makes it with his hands articulate what line and colour are unable to say. This was an entirely unexpected shift of medium which provided the artist with a strong boost in his powers of expression under conditions of extreme cruelty.

The result was a kind of sculpture the like of which, despite its diminutive size, was unprecedented in power and articulation in Iraq, or indeed anywhere in the Arab world. These sculptures venture, protest, reject, shout in anger and loudly declare their final alignment with man everywhere.

The artist’s hands, immersed in soft mud, thus become the minds own tool of reflection, of interpretation, of imaginative flight, real and fantastic all at once.

Ala Bashir’s fingers are actually, in sensitivity and professional skill, the fingers of the surgeon that he is: they lance a tumor to eradicate it, and knit a wound to heal it, in a time tumid and thick with wounds. The artist – surgeon, through plastic form, can only look for cure with great obstinacy until he discovers, repeatedly, that love is God’s only gift that enables man to transcend his tragedy and regain his wholeness and well – being beyond the claws of evil, rampaging as evil may be.

The kiln has of course imposed its unavoidable limitation on the size of these works, but the artist has exploited this very limitation by charging every fired sculpture with a concentration of symbols, the suggestive radiations of which explode in rapid succession in the viewer’s mind, expanding there in ever – widening circles.

Some of this may hark back in its roots to Sumerian art itself, where the artist handled his medium with the closest intimacy and the greatest possible articulation of pleasure and pain, all within a purely personal scale which if measured might be no more than the space between the open palms of the artist’s hands.

Hence springs that poetic spirit which elevates the sorrow of one man to be the sorrows of all men, and joins a single person’s love with the loves and passions of the whole of mankind.

In the meantime, in an unexpected irony, these clays, with their comparatively small masses and vacuums and splitting seem to turn into models that could be enormously enlarged into monuments, to address themselves to the city at large : and they would each address themselves to it as a witness and a warning and, finally, as annunciation, and for generations to come.

March, 1992

The Four Families Epic

Yousif Al-Sayeagn
Iraqi Writer

Those who followed Ala Bashir's works during the past two decades, know that his paintings presented generally persons of ambiguous features tightly bound to the suffering inherent to their existence and occupied with the riddles of life and death, alone with in a calculated space and frame which enhances its peculiarity.

It was only natural that, during the war, such suffering deepen an intensify giving rise to the feeling of loneliness towards confronting the inevitable death. If there is no escape from it, the question which poses it not only (why does one live or die?) but (when and how?)

It draws our attention at this stage that Ala Bashir, for several reasons, was fed up, with the features of his ambiguous figures and felt that they no longer satisfy him nor he satisfies them.

He felt that his symbols have left their frames and he has to look for them elsewhere and through a new light.


It seems that the figures in Ala's paintings, in general or special more intense circumstances, felt the urge to break the boundaries of their frames and the laws of two dimensions in which they found themselves imprisoned and chose to look for more dimension for themselves with richer and more active relationships, more in live with the new demanding situation.

Hence the paintings became sculptures and the artist turned way form painting because it no longer, it seemed, satisfied his in her suffering.

But why sculpture?

Is it because sculpture in this venture is less abstract and yet more expressive?

Or is it because when sculpture adds a third dimension it gives a wider freedom of expression through the multiplicity of vision angles and the aviation of the effect of light and shadow and the level of the scene and the perspective and even the motion?

Such cinematic features are difficult to express by painting imprisoned within photographic memory.

So which of the two is more able to evacuate and mobilize the emotion, painting or sculpture?

An observation in this connection is worth mentioning and that is, the figures in Ala Bashir's paintings reveal sculpturistic tendencies looking lonely with relation to space and their mass character.

The artist produced lately, in an exhibition, a convincing piece of sculpture featuring a direct sculpturistic sense.

Apart from that and because of our conviction of the diligence and seriousness of Ala Bashir and his dependence on the ideological side of his work, we do not think that the artist's switch over to sculpture is a whim or a passing experience soon to return to painting.


One does not need a great deal of thinking to find out that the aggression which Iraq faced and the embargo that followed and the stalemate, resistance and reconstruction that went with it constitutes a basic factor for the change in Ala Bashir's works.

It is not feasible that an innovator continues to be an innovator if he resorts to his old style and to remain in different to the changing situation.

In his new works the artist adopts sincerely the general suffering and takes care to make it his own, He introduces an (human) standing under severe exceptional pressure sometimes battered with wounds or smashed to pieces, yet surprisingly alive and defiant refusing to surrender and ready for love and life and ... martyrdom.


New, if we had tried to show sufficient motives behind the change from painting to sculpture, it is useful, based on the same logic, to search for the reason behind choosing fire day as a suitable materiel instead of, for instance brings or marble or any other materiel.

I do not think the artist choose pottery for easiness. Producing sculptures in pottery involves many difficulties and is not common. The difficulty increases when we know that Ala Bashir is not a specialist in this field. So why choose pottery as a final product and not as an intermediate stage to other forms of sculpture, let us examine what (clay) suggests and means to us. Is not clay a materiel of ration? Was not man created from clay and water?

A part from that in mixing with water, clay is connected with the concept of land, soil and the nostalgia of the home land, similarly it is related to the living place, home and wreathing that goes with it a.g. the same of settlement, construction and civilization.

The clay here is Iraqi and the water is also Iraqi and we will add here a third element and that is fire which is necessary by the nature of the technology of pottery with all the symbolic, heritable and religious shadows.

This concept embraces.

In order to move all such suggestion in the conscience, one must adopt the feeling of the clay figures subjected to the intense firing purifying them and giving them their final strength and solidity.

Hence it will not be easy to evade thinking that these monuments could not have been crystallized other than way man crystallizes within his own suffering.

This matter is related to the concept of originality, truth and going through the experience.

We have no personal ambition if we forget, when looking at Ala Bashir's pottery works, that these works bring back memories of ancient Iraqi innovation created by the Babylonians and Sumerians arousing in our conscience renewable feelings of % our relation with civilization.


What is construction? It is before going into details, asserting the feeling of the identity of the Iraqi product.

Clay and water……………….Iraqi
And the features……………..Iraqi

All the above symbolize special experience which is in way the general serves the special paving the way for putting the attempt of the artist in an elevated position above the attention. Then it becomes possible to accept fire being the symbol of suffering which the Iraqi's had to endure to save their face and assert their identity and ensure their existence.


From the first stage, the works of the artist suggest to the viewer a sense of some kind of restlessness. It promises, in more than one scene and angle of view to grasp the scene of the scene grasping him.

The size of the works serves their purpose despite the nature of some of the works performed with on architectural sense having a monumental nature.

The on looking is able to grasp the subject and become familiar with if being often below the viewing level. For he (viewer) is free to explore the details and connect them with one another and then connect one work with another reaching? What seems like an Epic?

One feels the need to have a second look at the work having first viewed them and I feel that the especial condition can be achieved once the artist arranges his works in such a way enabling the viewer to discover the interconnections.


The artist classified his works in four basic families, and gave each family a title as follows:

1-          The Echo of the Embargo
2-          Man and Woman
3-          Security and Fear
4-          Man and Crow

I feel that the titles chosen for these families are poor and futile to depend on and perhaps confusing to the viewer.

Instead and depending on the logic of the inter relationship of the works exhibited, it is possible to adopt the following sequence starting with man & woman then man and crow then security & fear finishing with Echo of embargo.

In order for the components of the epic to inter connect and exchange their effects, one feels the urge to go back again to the very beginning of the epic i.e. Man and woman to discover that he is looking at the scene with a new light effected by the end scene (Echo of Embargo).

The viewer falls in the end under the spell of a rhythmic ceremony having no apparent beginning or end.

And finally in order to participate in the expression of the viewer not though the work itself but through the innovative habits of the artist it is useful to point out that Ala Bashir even when at work, is fond of discussing the requirements of his innovation.

He argues with what he feels and suffers, provokes argument in order to a mend or reshapes the scenery tasting the mutual response of his experience.

Meanwhile the artist does not mind arousing our curiosity that no hide's special secrets we have to, in order to become closer to him discover ourselves. In that he leads us to expose our own secrets and through this riddle we find ourselves belonging to, perhaps unintentionally to his own camp.

To the artist who is a plastic surgeon by profession, his stand point with regard to the human body does not coincide with us the viewers. For eight years, specially during the war he dealt with human bodies damaged by bombshells wounds motivated by professional and conscience demands to mend these bodies and return to them their human beauty simultaneously, he was required, as an innovator, to return to his workshop to produce exactly the opposite of what he was performing in the operating theatre and with similar tools (tools of sculpture ) Such deformed bodies symbolized the strength of a document and martyrdom and warmth of innovation.

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