Khaldi’s paintings stem from his own life experiences, as well as from his deep connections to and critical distance from the Middle East. He was born in Lebanon and came of age during the country’s protracted civil war (1975–1990). Fearing that he would be conscripted into the fighting, he emigrated to Texas when he was 16, and completed his schooling there. In the mid-1990s, he moved once again, this time to Dubai, where he has been located ever since. Though he has never lived in the Palestinian territories, his family is originally from Palestine. When once asked how he would characterize his nationality, he answered: “Artists should not be classified, but, if I became famous, I would be proud to say I am a ‘Palestinian’ artist.”
At the center of so many of Khaldi’s compositions are considerations of identity and the fraught relationship between societal constraints and individual expression and freedom. It is no surprise, then, that the artist cites Joseph Beuys and the German Expressionists as among his foremost influences. He also draws upon his days writing graffiti, his vivid imagination and memories, current events, and his keen observations of his surroundings.
These threads come together in a work like Happy Ending (2013), one of a series in which he portrays the promise of unfettered sex with virgins in a paradisiacal afterlife that drives many radicalized Muslim men to join terror groups like ISIS. A nubile woman in a come-hither pose stands as the focus of this painting, a manifestation of the desire scripted into the narrative imposed upon people susceptible to extremist groups. Such deprivation and rigidity is antithetical to Khaldi’s own life and the spirit of his work, encapsulated by his claim: “I like this idea of being free-spirited.”
“Jeffar Khaldi: Uninhibited” is on view at Meem Gallery, Dubai, Sep. 15 – Oct. 17, 2015.