When I arrived at the Gaya Fusion of Sense for Hamad Khalaf's exhibition, slightly before its the opening, I was at first puzzled. Like an archeologist's hunt, pieces of broken pottery of various dimensions were laid scattered on a table, as if waiting to be examined and re-assembled.
The pottery looked Greek, and one recognized on the splinters the typical Greek style, with classical images of mythological heroes. This assemblage occupied the center of the room. On the wall right and left hung ten big colorful paintings with minute, repetitive images evenly distributed on the canvas.
At a closer look, it soon appeared that the scenes painted on them were the same as the ones found on the pottery splinters. For what reason, I didn't know.
Yet, further inside, other surprises awaited: a single shoe, painted, again, with a mythological scene; several war helmets, also painted; an anti-gas military uniform hung as a fan; the more I saw, the closer I looked at the objects and the scenes painted on them, and the more was revealed about the fascinating way the whole world of objects came together in harmony, and evoking, destruction, war and mythology. I was looking at a highly sophisticated and personal message against war and violence. By whom, if not by a victim of war itself?
After the surprise, the deciphering. The splintered pottery consists in fact of ceramic fragments collected from the site of the Bali Bombing in 2002. The Greek-like pottery paintings made on them by the artist refers to episodes from the Iliad. Metaphorically, Hamad Khalaf intends to tell us that the Bali Bombing is an episode of a global conflict of the kind symbolically told in the great Homerian epic: the ongoing conflict between Islam and the West, with truth, like in the Iliad, being gray and belonging to none of the two sides.
All the episodes he paints on his "pottery" splinters, in paintings and on other objects are chosen by him with the intention of underlining this symbolic message, while each time adding yet another layer of meaning.
For example, one of the "Greek-looking" episodes, found on the splinters as well as on one painting, tells the story of the killing of the Trojan soothsayer Laecon by a snake sent by the Greeks. To Hamad, this killing symbolizes an endeavor, just like in today's global conflict, to prevent the truth from being known by ordinary people.
Other episodes refer to the Argonauts' search for the Golden Fleece, which Hamad associates with the contemporary rush for the control of Middle-Eastern oil.
In this story, he sees Medea's killing of her two sons to avenge her husband Jason's unfaithfulness as similar to Saddam's burning of the Kuwaiti oil wells, that is, as he puts it, a senseless "attempt to control events in the face of an unavoidable future." As for the war objects proper, their reversal from objects of violence into objects of awareness was no less interesting: the helmet became the symbol of the control of power over the soldiers' mind; the boot that of the oppression by military force; the anti-gas fatigues that of the naivete of the attackers (the allies) who deemed their enemy more powerful than he was etc... The whole exhibition is readable in an almost infinite kaleidoscope of symbols.
The way the artist came to create this symbolic anti-war world-cum-installation is no less interesting as the works themselves and is a key to their understanding.
Hamad Khalaf was born in Kuwait in a noted lawyer's family with a cosmopolitan background. When the first Gulf War occurred and his country was invaded, he was in high school on the French Riviera. He had discovered there an uncanny taste for Greek mythology. He saw Greek mythology as the embodiment of the fundamental issues faced by humans. His hatred for Saddam and his discovery of the hidden side of mythology somehow came together as an obsessive need to talk about war and injustice. This was further reinforced when, back in Kuwait and as the manager of a demining company, he came to feel compassion for the "ordinary" enemy, the Iraqi soldier.
He started collecting war objects by the hundreds, not as part of a warrior's paraphernalia, but to fight "war" with instruments of war turned into symbolic weapons. He had his first exhibition in Kuwait in 1995, which was coldly received as lacking in "nationalism" -- of course. But he was welcomed in Europe, where he held a series of exhibitions in the late 1990s, one of them at the UNESCO gallery in Paris. His works then caught the attention of Belgian and German TV execs. Arab, Kuwaiti and an advocate of peace, Hamad was, in these years, a welcome anti-hero for the media.
It is not a common endeavor to have objects of war proclaim injunctions for peace. Most of history's heroes are warriors, and when war materials are "exhibited", it is usually in the museums of war or on the battlefield. Warmongers of all ilk do not like symbols other than elementary ones. As for soldiers who use their weapons for other purposes than war, they are rewarded by punishment, not medals.
This is what happened to so many soldiers in the First World War, in Vietnam and other conflicts, who dared to pose questions through their battlefield artwork -- drawings, poetry, "weapon installations" -- the purpose of the war they were involved into.
Their artistic creations were hidden and themselves wasted on the frontline. It is only now that such soldier artists are being recognized and their art rediscovered as "Trench Art", that is "any object made by soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians, from war materiel or any other material, as long as an object and a maker are associated in time and space with armed conflict or its consequences."
Hamad Khalaf's installations are along the same inspirational lines. Referring both to reality and mythology, they are the demystification of the notions of heroism, glory of the nation, sacrifice in the name of God and the other lies spread by the powers that be.
Hamad's individual position warrants comment. He protests against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, but also, no less strongly, against George Bush's liberation of Iraq. He is Arab and presents the Arabs as victims of international politics, but his works are not laden with any proclamation of ethnic, national or religious identity. All the more as most of his countrymen, orthodox Muslims, don't agree with his use of heathen myths to convey his anti-war message.
In fact, to explain his position, the best way is to refer to his own explanation of the myth of the bull-headed Minotaur, who was killed by the hero Theseus in the Knossos labyrinth -- yet another story painted on his objects.
"The Minotaur symbolizes the Other," says Hamad, "the one who is different, and who is always victimized for his difference. We, Arabs, are the Minotaurs of the contemporary world."
To this comment, I immediately add, considering Hamad's daring freedom of expression and the breadth of his human embrace, that he is probably himself, as a "free" artist, a Minotaur among his own countrymen.
Yet, we may want Hamad to be a little more like Ariadne with Theseus, to help us with a golden thread through the labyrinth of symbols his installation consists of. If so, he, the Minotaur, will probably survive and we will be further enriched. Why do I say so? Because Hamad's "labyrinth" is still in the making.
Some of his pieces are ready and for sale, such as his large paintings, but Hamad continues accumulating war objects and linking them to one another, through Greek mythology, in an increasingly complex labyrinth of meaning. And he indeed must go on doing so, preparing ever more structured multi-complex installations. Ariadne and Theseus will then be thankful, and the myth will have to be rewritten: Theseus, after all, did not kill the Cretan Minotaur: he became friend with him.
Meanwhile, in the swamps of Papua and the forests of Aceh, tired soldiers and guerrillas are -- who knows? -- making "trench art" from their bullets and guns, thus learning to symbolically fight war with instruments of war?
Let us hope so.