'I was thinking of painting the destruction of a monument to a dictator, and then I started to go through images of hundreds of monuments in Iraq, from the mythic Tower of Babel to the hundreds of newer monuments Saddam built in honour of himself. I realized that the destruction of these kinds of monuments is the same as the destruction of the person responsible for making them. After a dictator-whether it is Soviet, Nazi or Ba'athist-how you deal with these monuments is always a question' (Ahmed Alsoudani, 2010).
Destruction as a consequence of war and dictatorship is at the core of Alsoudani's oeuvre, as is sumptuously depicted in the present masterpiece. This young Iraqi artist sources his painterly imagination from all the horrors of war and despotism he witnessed in his homeland. Raised in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's rising reign of fear and torture, he fled in exile to Syria at the age of 19 and later studied in America, at Maine College of Art and at the Yale University School of Art. As an exiled artist watching his country being ravaged by war, where his family and friends remained, Alsoudani was torn inside and found himself 'caught in between', a state of mind which he describes as 'being 'between' two places and two worlds (which) allows me to see and hear things from a different point of view' (A. Alsoudani, quoted in R. Goff, 'Ahmed Alsoundani in Conversation with R. Goff', pp. 59-62, Ahmed Alsoudani, exh. Cat., New York, 2009, p. 61).
Painted in 2008, Untitled is Alsoudani's first painting of a series of works he realised, in which he explores the theme of the 'dictator'. The present work emblematises the correlation observed by Alsoudani, between the fall of a dictator and the tearing down of monuments, which were initially built to honour that leader. Although Alsoudani possibly hints to Saddam Hussein being toppled in this painting, he purposely does not title it, offering a wider range of universal interpretations without making any specific reference to a particular event. The tyrant is identified through his uniform with its elaborately embroidered collar, perhaps referring to an earlier war, and through his chair, symbolising the strength of his authoritarian rule, persisting to stay in power until he is forced to go. The verticality of this straight chair on the left part of the composition and the uniform's meticulous pattern, implying law and order, highly contrast with the fragmented elements scattered around the shattered figure and tumbling down on the right side of the work. This could allude either to the dictator's most desirable dream, that of complete destruction and chaos, or it may depict how a despotic leader's omnipotent control of a state achieved through war and terror results in total devastation of not only the victimised people but also of the monuments erected to praise dictators.
Alsoudani depicts the tyrannic figure with blood-shot vibrant red and orange pigments, alluding to the wounds due to war and bombs. He further gives the face a disturbing marbled texture of freshly scalped skin and flesh, which is ripped apart in places. The nose has broken off whilst the mouth has been stuffed with an intriguing organic translucent blue element, possibly an unidentified victim's face yet which resembles the head of a vicious snake, associated to the dictator's venom spreading amongst his people. An explosion seems to have literally reduced the entire left side of the figure's face to a black hole, connoting tenebrous darkness, emptiness and death. Alsoudani disfigures the leader in a graphic and monstrous way, similar to some of Francis Bacon's self-portraits, in which the restless distortions and shocking self-mutilations are a product of the Irish-born British artist's self-exploration. Yet amidst these horrific and fascinating distortions emerges a touch of black humour in Alsoudani's work through his caricature-like depiction of the dictator, recalling German artist George Grosz's overly grotesque representations of war and despotism.
For Alsoudani, disfiguration is one of the outcomes for despotic leaders and depicting it with such creativity, energy and violence may be liberating for an exiled artist who witnessed war and terror. It could also be a reference to the cause of his escape from Iraq back in 1995, when he jokingly defaced a public image of Saddam Hussein and was frightened to be discovered as being one of the culprits. Alsoudani's magnificent depiction of horror is further enhanced by the globular cartoon-like white eye, recalling that of Saturn in Francisco Goya's gruesome 'Black Painting' representing the Roman God devouring one of his sons, executed in 1819-1823, in which the Spanish Romantic master uses mythology to illustrate Spain's ongoing civil conflicts of that time. The young Iraqi painter was familiar with some of Goya's most iconic works, The Disasters of War of the 1810s, as he had admired those prints whilst studying at Yale. Goya's Disasters of War are rendered in an exquisitely sublime way, just as Alsoudani depicts this theme in the same talented and macabre way. The eyeball is a recurring motif in Alsoudani's oeuvre, being also a specific reference to the Lebanese poet Abbas Baythoon. In the present lot, the eye of Alsoudani's dictator stands out at the centre of the composition and desperately stares at the demolition of his own institution, knowing that he will ultimately also become a pile of debris himself.
Through his unparalleled imagination inspired by the tragic events he witnessed, Alsoudani expresses his own inner tension fused with the consequences of surrounding contemporaneous conflicts, hence producing exceptionally striking paintings loaded with an intense violence and atrocity, purposely stimulating all of the viewer's senses. Lying between abstraction and realism, Alsoudani's apocalyptic yet caricatural works sometimes have a hint of optimism, as amongst all the chaos in Untitled of 2008 there is hope once the despotic leader has been overthrown.
Detail of Francisco de Goya (1746-1828): Saturn Devouring One of His Children. Madrid, Prado. Copyright 2012. Photo Scala, Florence
Grosz, George (1893-1959): The Convict: Monteur John Heartfield 10 x 12 (1)(A) after Franz Jung's Attempt to Get Him Up to His Feet, 1920. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) COPYRIGHT 2012. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence & COPYRIGHT DACS 2012