HALIM AL KARIM | موكب Procession
Sep 1 – Oct 29, 2022
“Even the most difficult struggles in life share the existence of hope and innocence. Our eternal challenge is to recognize this reality and to see the presence of love reflected in all stages of the journey.”
- Halim Al Karim
Robischon Gallery is proud to present “موكب PROCESSION,” the gallery’s fourth solo exhibition by noted Iraqi-born photographer and sculptor Halim Al Karim. Known internationally as a prestigious Iraqi Pavilion artist in the 54th Venice Biennale, Al Karim’s life and art are inextricably linked on profound and poignant levels. As he continues to bear witness and experience the highs and lows of the turbulent world around him, Al Karim’s life has been both arduous and love-filled; qualities which are key to his mesmerizing bodies of work. In “موكب PROCESSION,” (named in part for the Babylonian Procession, a boulevard in Babylon designated as a tribute to the omnipotence of the gods), Al Karim offers his vocabulary of toy-like imagery to merge past and present in service to his philosophical and spiritually timeless stance. Featured in the current exhibition is Al Karim’s most hard-won series to date entitled “Immortality Journey,” in which the artist speaks through unexpected symbol, layered surface and reflective medium to visually convey his belief that in the face of conflict and tragedy, it is still possible to hold onto hope and a transformational, child-like open-heartedness.
Remarkably built through uncommon sculptural means, innovative techniques and a dedication to creative challenges, the concepts involved in Halim Al Karim’s latest radiant figurative sculptures were first conceived in Iraq in the late 1980s. This period and subsequent stage in the early 1990s in the artist’s life proved to be a time of great hardship for his countrymen and women, as well as for Al Karim personally. For the artist it was a chapter of intense solitude and fear as Al Karim lived far into the desert with little to shelter him as he dealt with the consequences of choosing to flee conscription to avoid participating in the cruelty toward innocent Iraqis by Saddam Hussein’s army. In doing so, Al Karim placed himself in harm’s way, month after month, as he attempted to escape the threat of capture with Hussein’s helicopters regularly flying overhead. After three years of living in the desert, solely surviving due to the bravery and generosity of an elderly Bedouin woman named Najma who provided him with life-saving food and water, Al Karim finally made his way out of the country, never forgetting the kindness of his elderly personal savior. He travelled to other parts of the Middle East and on to Europe where over many years, he eventually rose to a significant level of recognition as an artist. The exhibition works on view, like so many other Al Karim series, originated and incubated some years prior to coming to fruition – as the artworks would have had to wait until it was either safe to do so (after the death of the dictator), or the right moment to be physically realized for the artist.
With the current “Immortality Journey” series, the sculptures were created over the past two years in America, some thirty-four years later after their conception. The artist’s childhood experiences in Najaf and as a young man in the Iraq desert awakened a keen-eyed sense of his surroundings and compelled him toward a profound investigation into self that continues to direct his potent artistic vision today. In “Immortality Journey,” the merging of his complex compositions and multi-layered, electroplating techniques on fiberglass, invite the viewer into a rare world which marries ancient and present-day forms as vehicles for universal truths. Carried by the artist’s devoted intention to encourage an awareness in humanity that transformation is possible through hope and the clarity and compassion of innocence, the toy-centric objects become a stand-in for the world and a kind of shared life journey. The title “موكب PROCESSION” hints at an ultimate passage, a celebration of the universal spirit and a progression not only through time, but outside of time to an awareness of something much larger than humanity itself.
Al Karim’s chosen sculptural elements – wide-eyed baby dolls, prancing horses, triumphant Rae of Star Wars, he-man superheroes, sea and jungle creatures, fearsome dinosaurs and more, piled atop vehicles and conveyances of all sorts, are clearly intended to evoke feelings of play. The beloved toys spark endless imaginings of adventure while simultaneously, for children, they also hold deeply felt secrets. They allow the impressionable youth to transcend for a time, as the artist sees it, any of life’s harsh realities and instead make possible a feeling of freedom and creativity in a sheltered state of innocence. Collectively, Al Karim’s amalgamated toy-forms are transmogrified into totemic objects of intrigue; abstracted yet recognizable forms that invite closer inspection and welcome each viewer’s subjective narrative. Of the “Immortality Journey” sculptures on view, an elaborate procession of ten goddess-like doll figures on horseback carrying a dizzying array of lively cargo, caravan their way through the center of the main gallery. Also poised on sand-hued pedestals and sharing a backdrop of blackened-night-sky walls, is a parallel procession of equally unwieldly stacked-toys accompanying the goddesses – this time mounted atop modern-day vehicles. The series, regal with luminous shades of gold, bronze, silver, pink, and blue-toned shimmering surfaces, often carry barnacle-like textural metal elements reminiscent of deep sea finds of antiquities, all conveying a kind of centuries-old preciousness as the sculptures summon memory, joy and loss, while inspiring veneration. Each reflective smaller goddess sculpture is an homage to the gently smiling, yet formidable, towering female sculpture nearby – that represents for Al Karim, a symbol of compassion and childlike beneficence guiding the procession to a higher plane. The impactful large-scale work also stands as personal reference to his Bedouin caregiver, Najma, who was integral to Al Karim’s physical, emotional and spiritual survival in the desert so long ago.
As a dramatic denouement, the felt presence of the fourteen-foot, shocking-pink, pig-tailed doll-like sculpture titled Sumerian Savior is immense, not only because of its outsized scale, but also for the realm of neon color-charged energy that seemingly spills onto all that surrounds. With a title invoking Sumer, one of the birthplaces of civilization now a part of modern-day Iraq, the artist makes clear the embodied potency of the figure, its wide-eyed countenance evocative of sculptural remnants of ancient Sumerian faces, and in its uniqueness, for the artist, as a symbol for compassion while exalting in a childlike purity. The Sumerian Savior’s saturated vibratory pink hue is mirrored back to it from the lustrous surfaces of the adjacent “Immortality Journey” sculptures; just as the visitors who stand before it subtly glow in its radiance. Exotic yet familiar, integrated yet lofty amongst her journeyers, the artist-deified goddess resembles a kind of larger-than-life, other-worldly doll in a child’s dream, who seems to serve as a guardian to protect and keep innocence alive. To bestow magical powers onto toys is developmental to the lucky few, yet to other children of the world, it may mean an important emotional survival in times of duress. Activated by the past and recreated in the present, Al Karim’s Sumerian Savior is deeply suffused with an incandescent potency, which shares its pure intent with the encompassing, optically complex toy procession it ignites.
Through his accumulated experiences and dynamic, uncommon sculptural work, Halim Al Karim gathers what’s fundamental for himself within life’s odyssey and the survival of all. He states, “In my early years I chose to study art because it was the only language that the government could not understand and the only way that I could speak the truth. It is a slow process, but essential, as I wish to help society survive. Art, for me, is the language of the hopeful. In the highest terms, it is my feeling that each soul stems from and exists within an all-encompassing love and cannot wholly survive without recognizing love’s presence in the world. I choose to embrace the world in love.”
A native of Najaf, Iraq, Halim Al Karim studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. He represented Iraq at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 – Iraq’s first re-entry onto the cultural world stage after a thirty-six-year absence. He was nominated for the 2010 Sovereign Art Prize and was awarded the Jury Prize in the International Cairo Biennale in Egypt. The artist has exhibited in the United Arab Emirates, France, Holland, Lebanon, Jordan, and the United States including The ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art, Karlsruhe, Germany; The Paul Klee Museum, Bern, Switzerland; and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Boulder, CO; among others. The artist’s Museum collections include the Denver Art Museum, the Princessehof National Museum for Ceramics, Leeuwarden, Netherlands; the French Cultural Center in Amman, Jordan; the Arabic Museum of Contemporary Arts, Doha, Qatar; L’Institut du monde Arabe, Paris, France; and the Sorsuk Museum, Beirut, Lebanon along with inclusion in the Saatchi Collection in London, UK, Victoria and Albert Museum, UK; the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo; Arton Art Museum in China; Yinchaun MoCA in China; the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Texas, USA; and the United States Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.