The Spiritual Universe of Rafa al-Nasiri

James Harithas,2013

Rafa al-Nasiri is an international artist of great significance. He is one of the heroes of modern Iraqi culture. His art is one of spiritual aspiration and intuition, one that reifies a new vision of transcendence that defines the spiritual soul of Iraq. His paintings and graphics transcend the stolid horror of modern life by providing the viewer with a profound stimulus for contemplation and solace. They introduce the viewer to emotional states that give visual definition to life’s most serious concerns—loneliness, compassion, spiritual enlightenment, death, and the sublime. 

Rafa’s superb sense of structure, his understanding of the transcendent nature of color, and the controlled velocity of his brushstrokes suggest a metaphysical orientation based in part on the urgency of gesture.  Gyorgy Lucas, in his essay in “Soul and Form,” defines gesture as “nothing more than a movement that expresses something unambiguous,” and regarding form he went on to state, “the gesture is that unique leap by which the absolute is transformed, in life, into the possible.” Rafa engages the spiritual experience directly through his own approach to the conceptual language and the kinesics of creating form.

The spiritual experience is much more than an epiphany consisting of moral imperatives which transform one’s everyday activities. To Rafa al-Nasiri it is an illumination, a visual embodiment of pure faith, symbolizing God’s paramount creation. His paintings and graphics delve deeply into the mystical sources of spiritual awareness.

Because of its profound spirituality, Rafa’s art runs parallel to Abstract Expressionism, which was initially inspired by European Surrealism and Soviet Abstract Art, and which went on to become a powerful expression of the United States’ post-WWII history of ever-expanding physical and intellectual boundaries.  Rafa’s approach to art has Modernist roots, but at the same time, it is inspired by the artist’s exposure to the vast, mysterious desert of his homeland and by his poetic grasp of the enigmatic and mystical Arab mind. The critical difference is in the fundamental importance of “place” in Rafa’s thought and perception. His profound spatial vision is transformative and draws a strong comparison to the Chinese aesthetic that aims not only to capture the outer appearance of his subject but also its inner spirit and energy.  Rafa’s approach absorbs the Chinese aesthetic into his succinctly Arab/Muslim frame of reference. 

Although the majority of his works are abstract, some of them contain direct references to the war, for example, his graphic masterpiece Seven Days in Bagdad depicts the horror of the initial US attack on Baghdad, and his accordion-fold collage,  Al-Mutanabi Street, refers to a car bomb attack in the artists’ quarter of Baghdad.  

Each series of Rafa’s abstract paintings has a particular impact.  For example, the series Light from Darkness is a powerful evocation of light reversing itself in the desert, revealing a cosmic principle of the natural world. The Prayers for Baghdad radiate a tomb-like beauty and a heroic anamnesis. The calligraphic compositions treat writing as an abstraction writ large across land and sky.  His abstract paintings are also distinguished by their wrenching inner glow that further reveals the artist’s spiritual insight. Rafa does not work with color, but as the master colorist Josef Albers would have said, he works in color, meaning that his color is not decorative but articulates strong emotion.  His paintings appear timeless not simply because of their authenticity and deep feeling but also because they represent a spiritual path to truth.

James Harithas, Director, Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013