Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Why I Chose To Paint Fatima

“Fatima, the Virgin of Abu Ghraib”
Why I Chose to Create This Painting
July 23, 2005, By Kim Alphandary

Kim Alphandary spent her formative years as a modern artist, after devoting ten years to that endeavor she became disillusioned and quit; and eventually chose to express her creativity as a freelance journalist covering U.S. foreign policy. Here she talks about her recent decision to pick up the brush again and create a series of anti-war art that is currently on exhibition in Spain.

My art show consists of one painting and 12 large drawings. The most important work in the show is a painting titled “Fatima, the Virgin of Abu Ghraib”. This painting is an illustration of one woman’s story in Iraq, a story that has become a modern day myth. It is a powerful tale about how a women and her family deal with rape during times of war.

Beginning to Paint Again

My daughter and I moved from the United States to Spain late last summer to live in Spain for a year. My daughter attended the local high school while I worked from home.

As we lived in Ronda, I kept bumping into artists who were having art shows, ranging from amateur to professional. The idea occurred to me, if Spain is so supportive of the arts, why don’t I paint something too? Eventually I found the courage, booked a show at the local “Casa de Cultura” (Culture House), with two and a half months to create a few paintings. I ran down and bought some oil paints, I’d always wanted to paint in Oil. Also, the idea of painting again had been brewing in my mind for the last couple of years. I’d been slowly but surely, along with my normal obsession of following the news, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, began collecting photographs.

I started my first painting on rough canvas to see where and how I was going to approach this project, what’s my style, and more basically, teach myself how to paint in Oil. It was a painting of the bombing of Fallujah. I thought that it would be interesting to push these types of images even further, make the bombing look so beautiful, remote and awesome, that it’s extreme lack of reality would shock you into dealing with that very reality. The painting was turning out okay, but the canvas was of such poor quality that it buckled and twisted, and just turned into a mess.

Chronological Account of my relationship with Fatima

Once the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed by Seymour Hersh I began to notice occasional comments on the Internet like, “What about the women?” “Are there any women in Iraq? These small pleas kind of silently entered my consciousness but never really took root, as in; I did not make a deliberate decision to research this topic.

Then I stumbled across the story of Fatima, more than once, and suddenly, so moved by the story, and hit with an idea of how I wanted to deal with it, I immediately began painting; I bought a stretched canvas this time and went to work. I was especially struck by this story, realizing that this is a powerful modern myth. Myths are great, as Diego Rivera illustrated in his transformation of Mexican society’s understanding of itself, creating new myths that sought the truth in just how their mixed race society came into existence.

Another element to the idea of how I was going to portray this myth was based on a commitment that I developed as a journalist, to never create a story that portrays the actors as victims and nothing more, to make sure to give voice to their purpose, courage and dignity.

Fatima, in writing her letter to her family showed such incredible courage in being willing to write something so brutally honest, especially when considering her religion and culture, much less the fact that she was an extremely young and shy woman.

So. The idea I had was to paint her with the ultimate cultural dignity that I could, as a Virgin, using the symbolism that is found everywhere in the Southern U.S. and Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe. I also wanted to paint a painting that could appeal to the widest audience possible, paint for the East and the West. I verified all the symbolism that I used with Islamic friends of mine. Green for the cloak, green for Islam. The hands were transformed into those of Christ bound by rope, as Islamic people do not pray with their hands cupped together as shown in all of the Virgin of Guadalupe paintings. Though, I am beginning to discover that I am a rare bird, no matter which way I go, from extremely intellectual modern art to my “art for the masses”; I’ve painted something that most people cannot or do not want to deal with. RAPE. No matter what kind of incredible dignity that victim might display, no matter how great and strong that person might be.

Why Did I Create this Painting?

I created this painting because it gave me an opportunity to deal with one of the most understated, not talked about crimes in this world. Men too suffer incredible crimes, this is true, so do women. Even though sexual crimes in times of war have become the focus of increased public attention in the last decade, as we stand witness to the reporting on Iraq, we can see that we have a long way to go.

The painting took two months to complete, painting almost full time. Many times I would have quit if it had not been for my commitment to the retelling of Fatima’s story. The fact that I believed in this painting was unshakable. I continually researched this topic as I painted, the more I learned the more committed I became. I cried. I listened to Irish music the whole time I painted; the music gave me the spiritual peace of mind to be able to paint. Why did I cry? For Fatima. For all the peoples of Iraq. And for myself.

I was raped by a number of soldiers in 1980, in Bolivia, I was picked up by a roving truck of soldiers, it was curfew, they rounded up all persons in the streets that were out past ten o’clock. The ordeal lasted for some eight hours. At that time I was young, I’d been to art school, but never really read any books or had any kind of ability to write, or awareness of anything beyond the world that I could see or touch. I never sought counseling. Throughout the years I shared my secret with a handful of friends. If awoken at night, I would awake in a panic, looking around, carefully calculating where I was, what country or place or home was I in, was it safe. Only now, 25 years later, during the process of painting this painting, have I gained the ability to tell almost anyone about what happened 25 years ago.

Art Show

With my art show scheduled for the 21^st of July, I realized there was no way that I was going to be able to fill the gallery with paintings, as one painting was not yet complete, so I invited a friend to show her work as well. There were still two walls that needed to be covered. So, I decided to whip out as many sketches as I could in charcoal. I took the photos that I’d collected and began to draw them. All the drawings had a large upper border where I put large titles and dates, the date indicating when what they are looking at actually happened. The bombing of Fallujah finally got a voice, I also drew the make-shift cemetery in a football field in Fallujah, a sniper, a suicide bomber, an Iraqi in prayer, a US marine carving a watermelon for Halloween, etc, etc.

I don’t know if I’ve done anyone any favors. I don’t know at all if I should have drawn these drawings. The show has been open for two days now. People come into the gallery with a happy look on their faces; they are going to enjoy themselves by looking at some art. My friend’s art is quite colorful, kind of a cross between Joan Miro and folkloric art from India, two walls worth. Then they stumble across my drawings. Some move quickly, others more slowly, most seem to stop and contemplate the suicide bomber’s remains, calculating that that must be what is left of a person who has had explosives attached to their waist. Some look at the painting for only a minute and leave, others take the time to read the story on the wall. All, except for a few friends, leave the gallery quickly, a few in tears, nobody has questions, no one wants to talk. I am not at all sure about what I’ve attempted to do. An experiment in forms of expression, forms of activism, I will most likely leave behind the world of art and return to journalism as my form of self-expression.
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