An Iraqi Painter’s Portraits of Street Vendors Take a Subtle Jab at Class Structures
Faisel Laibi Sahi’s new show at Dubai’s Meem Gallery is called “Agony and Recreation.” On first glance, the vibrant images of fruit vendors, shoe shiners, and coffee waiters appear to portray more of the latter part of the title than the former. But a closer look reveals a satirical edge to the Iraqi artist’s work.
The common first impression—that Faisel’s paintings are simply cheerful illustrations of daily life in Iraq—is prompted both by the artist’s aesthetic and his choice of subjects. Both in his portraits of individual characters, like The Fruit Seller and The Butcher (both 2013), and in larger works that show an assortment of people, as in the waiter, shoe shiner, and café patrons of The Cafe 2 (2014), Faisel’s look is highly stylized, but with a certain realism of gesture. The figures and forms are crisply delineated and formally arranged, as if seated for old-fashioned portraits; the color palette is lively and whimsical, creating an effect that’s light-hearted, even cartoonish.
Of course, there’s a flipside to the so-called “recreation.” Though he now resides in London and has been working in Europe for decades, Faisel was born in Iraq and attended the Institute of Fine Arts and Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Looking back at his native culture, the artist is both affectionate and critical. There seems to be peace and beauty in his portrayals of the individuals that appear alongside shops and homes—the man and boy (most likely father and son) in The Material Shop (2013), the feminine figure of Abaya woman (2014), the turbaned vendor surrounded by colorful fruit in The Watermelon Seller (2010). But observed together as a collection, hanging on the gallery walls, viewers may notice the repetition of forms, and a consistent theme of servility. Faisel suggests a challenge to certain elements of culture and class structure in contemporary Iraq: women relegated to a domestic sphere, professions being passed down from father to son, and the idea of a person who is born to serve, for instance.
Look closely at Faisel’s background and you’ll learn that he’s indeed politically motivated: he has contributed to Iraqi periodicals and produced a satirical newspaper for 10 years in London. But in this collection, the artist pulls off a feat that’s powerful in its subtlety: drawing the viewer in with vibrant, eye-catching portraiture, then raising hard questions that persist well after the exhibition is over.
“Agony and Recreation” is on view at Meem Gallery, Dubai, Jan. 28–Mar. 3, 2015.