Iraqi artist Ahmed Al Bahrani’s solo show at Artspace Hamra explores the perennial themes of war, exile and survival against the odds

A poignant message adorns the bronze sculpture of a thin foam mattress, folded in half and tied by a rope: “This is not a mattress. This is my family.” The piece reflects one of the central preoccupations of Ahmed Al Bahrani’s work, which often dwells on war, exile and personal history.
Born in Iraq in 1965, the artist was forced into exile 23 years ago and now lives between Sweden and Qatar. Bahrani’s latest solo show, Autobiography, at Artspace Hamra this autumn, is comprised of 14 pieces and provides glimpses into what the artist calls “the major stages of my life as a human.”
“I mean the stages which influenced my character and my soul, and which lingered in my memory and sentiment,” he clarifies. “Most of the works are sculptures of my personal image, translated into exotic and peculiar, yet technically realistic, works.”
Bahrani has a talent for juxtaposing two unexpected elements to powerful effect. The works on show in Autobiography include a bronze statue of an egg carton, in which the smooth orbs of the eggs are interspersed with tiny guns, helmets and army boots, a startling reminder that war is ongoing in some parts of the world, even as daily life continues unchanged in others. A series of delicate lightbulbs are decorated with love hearts and hand grenades, or a flock of delicate butterflies, fleeting reminders of beauty on a fragile frame.
Bahrani originally began working with metal as a means of ensuring his work stood out. “ “My career started in Iraq during the time of the international embargo, where there was a serious shortage of materials and techniques that allow artists to distinguished themselves from their peers or teachers,” he recalls. “I refused to be one of the crowd, therefore steel was very appealing to me… It might be technically difficult to handle at first, but with experience it has become easy to form it into any shape I desire.”

The Pillow, 52 × 35 × 27 cm, bronze, 2015, courtesy of Artspace Hamra

The Pillow, 52 × 35 × 27 cm, bronze, 2015, courtesy of Artspace Hamra

Bahrani cites a broad range of influences, from Eduardo Chillida, to Richard Serra, to Ai Weiwei, but his main inspiration has always been his homeland. “I have been living in exile for 23 years,” he says. “At the beginning of this journey I was committed to creating art that reflects a pure Iraqi spirit and intellect, as if I was in denial about my life away from home. After years of exile… my artistic character has gone through immense changes. It no longer belongs only to my place of birth. I feel that the whole world is my homeland… Nonetheless, I still open my eyes each morning, feeling I am still in that simple house on the Euphrates where I was born, hearing my mother’s voice and the smell of the bread she makes. I will always dream of going back to that, even though I will artistically and technically belong to humanity and the globe.” •
Autobiography continues at Artspace Hamra until October 3

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Colours Issue #32, on page 27