THE COSMIC SCENE, (Ten Years, Three Cities)

Venue:Bahrain National Museum, Manama
RAFA NASIRI  / 1989 - 1999

Ten Years, Three Cities

While still residing in Bahrain as an art lecturer at Bahrain University, Rafa Nasiri held a retrospective exhibition entitled "Ten Years, Three Cities," covering the decade of 1989-1999. During that period Nasiri lived and worked in three cities, namely Baghdad, Amman and Manama, after which he finally decided in 2003 to settle back in Amman. This put an end to forty years of his academic life. Selective works representing Nasiri's artistic outcome during these years were displayed in a solo show at Bahrain National Museum, Manama in October 1999. The collection offered an opportunity to investigate the effect of place and surroundings on his artistic experience. Meanwhile Nasiri, a photographer as well, spoke at the museum lecture hall about his art and its interrelation with the environment. He presented, through a selection of his slides, certain unassuming images and views that one could easily pass unnoticed, illustrating that his work is close to nature's own process, rather than an imitation of it.
For Rafa Nasiri, nature has always been a source of great inspiration, driving him to visualise his own concepts and develops his vision. He grew up in Tikrit, a city 180 kilometres north of Baghdad that is surrounded by a wilderness, an endless extension saturated with light. Having been educated in China, he adopted the Chinese technique of working like nature, as opposed to simply attempting to imitate it. His early works showed a realistic tendency, with a simplified and stylised manner. However, during his two year-course in Portugal (1967-1969) he settled on adopting abstraction as an artistic language, when a passion for his early childhood scenes was fully evoked in his mind. Nasiri elaborates upon his creative process in those formative decades:
"During my early art education at the Institute of Fine Arts Baghdad (1956-1959), I was in the habit of making close observations of all the transformations which were taking place in the modern art: transformations that constituted a source of anxiety to Jawad Selim and his colleagues. They had a profound impact on my choice to pursue my further studies in China; they also shaped the course of my initial vision of both life and art.
"Between 1959 and 1963, while studying in Peking, Chinese art taught me how to look at nature contemplatively in order to paint not as I see but as I recollect the scenes. Indeed, I learnt how these visible things glide by spontaneously and profoundly from the innermost confines of the soul to the rounded tip of the brush: free and uninhibited, rendering a total being with the minimum possible amount of forms and colours. Thus, my aim has always been to reduce ideas and objects while remaining satisfied with the substance. Even when I was undertaking the hardest stages of academic learning, I used to attempt, on the fringe of those stages, to refine and improve shapes and colours, relying on my own perceptivity and judgement. This was my stock-in-trade, with which I was to encounter all the challenges of modern art.
"In the late sixties, at the height of those radical changes that broke out in the West, I was in Portugal for another two-year course (1967-1969). There, being attracted to abstract art, I found myself spontaneously relating to Arabic calligraphy as a distinctive composite element. Indeed, I was drawn to it, in all its grace and plastic potential, in an attempt to render it pliant and to create my own chromatic stretches and expressive designs in abstraction. It verged on the spirit of a Bedouin who observes in the desert what an urban dweller can to neither see nor conceive. Both my paintings and prints comprised small details and simple symbols which, through diverse relationships and blending, constitute a world at once familiar and incongruous to whoever ponders, contemplatively and deeply, over universe and nature."
During certain periods of his career, Nasiri conceived and visualised nature as a duality of land and space: a sort of encounter and dialogue with nature. The horizon is shown as a stark line in the middle, acting as a barrier that brings the image to an infinite point. The artist adopted abstraction as an artistic language for many years, and it was through this that nature and other scenes from his early childhood maintained their presence in his mind. Open spaces with infinite horizons are reflected emphatically in his images, yet they are not totally without the reference of recognisable scenes or objects.
With a growing interest in environments, and the evolvement of his sense of place, Nasiri's artworks began to reference the human factor, reflecting it in signs, figures, writings and other ephemera, showing the effect of man and time on urban features. The variations in the physical geography of nature that are represented in the images articulate the undulations of the artist's innermost feelings.
The works of Nasiri during the ten years of 1989 to 1999 were executed in three different cities. His artistic language, as revealed in the series of works presented, maintained a growing tension and an acute sense of agony that reflected the deteriorating political and social conditions, as well as the terrible extent of human sufferings, in his homeland, Iraq.
Such variations are artistic responses to his heightened moods. He worked in three main media: acrylic and mixed media on canvas, and etchings on paper. Seen together, Nasiri’s works seem to reveal the mood of expression, shifting from an extreme state of serenity and tranquillity to an equally extreme infuriation, and from translucent light to deep density and turbulence. Some of the works executed during those ten years manifest a distinct sense of agony and loneliness, as seen in the overwhelming blackness and the scattered signs of rejection and denial. One feels an inner stream underlying the highly aesthetic surfaces, a profound speech that esoterically holds its protest.
Notably among his various technical experimentations, Rafa Nasiri used Chinese paper on board with acrylics in a series of paintings done in the period of 1992 to 1993. In these works the artist burst forth with a cry, an explosion that found its expression in dark streams of colour, filling the surface with totally free movement that transcends the boundaries of the canvas.
In Nasiri’s work, colour plays a vital role in the ultimate result of his compositions. His colours possess metaphoric as well as aesthetic values; they are more than a mere complementary element as they pass through the same transformational stages as all the other elements of the composition. Similarly, the effect of light is of vital importance to these transformational stages. To him, as to the traditional Muslim artist, light is simply a quality that reveals itself in colour. It goes beyond the surface, nourishing the work like water while moving through its veins and elevating the scene to different levels of existence. For that reason, and to be certain of the results, Nasiri paints only in daylight. 
The influence of Eastern methods and philosophies of art seems to have led him to a greater understanding of the stimulus behind Islamic art, its perfection sublimation and spirituality. Such growing awareness and deep understanding can be felt in his series of paintings and etchings entitled "Homage to Al-Mutanabi" (1998-1999), which commemorates the great Arab poet (10th century AD). This project set new horizons for Nasiri, allowing him to experiment further with his aim of bringing together Western and Eastern art techniques and methods, both modern and traditional.
Nasiri's art works adhere to high aesthetic standards. He aims to reach the highest possible excellence in rendering his artworks, believing that the sense of beauty can be achieved by integration and perfection as much as it may be achieved by dissent and harmony. As such, Nasiri is keen to adhere to the basic rules of classical European painting in maintaining balance, distribution of volumes and the effect of colour and shade. His colours are immensely charged with metaphoric expressions, a visual poetic language and a true conveyer of a spirit's firebrand, kindled or appeased, infuriated or pacified.
Usually, his visual research is initially sparked by trifling objects that he may find by chance in his surroundings, possibly after some other has abandoned them. He finds in these small, insignificant objects the vital potential for becoming a manifestation of beauty.
Perhaps the point which Nasiri tried to deliver in his lecture: "My Visual Sources" was that his artworks are neither entirely realistic nor complete works of imagination – rather, his paintings and etchings are extensions of both. The slides displayed shots taken by him personally in various parts of the world, images that attracted his attention as he moved from one place to another. These were small and insignificant objects that showed traces of nature's influence on places such as wall cracks, rusted irons, holes, casual writings or any other traces that he regards as having certain expressive values. In effect, they stand as art works themselves. Nasiri wished to convey the assimilation between his paintings and his photographs to confirm that his concepts follow the logic of nature's process.
Examining the series of works produced by Rafa Nasiri during the 1990s, one may detect the subtle, gradual movement within his works. The more free his compositions are, the more rich and condensed his colours become, always maintaining a referential significance. While exploring the realms of his scenes, be it terrestrial or of outer space, Nasiri dwells within his scene, becoming united with it due to a deep-held belief that direct involvement is the shortest route to the truth. Thus his composition usually starts from a chaotic point and follows the traces of form in the formless, in an attempt to create his own order within a world of total disorder.

    May Muzaffar
Bahrain, October 1999