The sacral, the legendary, the mythic and the museological are all critical considerations for the artist Emii Alrai. Her exhibition The High Dam at The Tetley closed prematurely due to coronavirus restrictions, but I was fortunate enough to visit the exhibition twice and attend an online discussion between Alrai and eminent feminist art historian Griselda Pollock on 11 November. Listening to their wide-ranging discussions I was struck by the scope and breadth of references, spanning thousands of years of art history from the ancient culture of Mesopotamia, to the colonial extraction of cultural objects from their originating cultures, to the present-day musealising of Middle-Eastern heritage within Western museums.
Alrai spoke with a disarming candour about the complexities of making work as a second generation Iraqi-British artist, seeking to both complicate static notions of Middle-Eastern culture and resist simplistic representations of diasporic identities. What rang out clearly was a dual sense of ‘belonging’, with a thread connecting the artist to Iraqi culture through family stories and oral traditions, bound up with more painful feelings of ‘severings’, in Alrai’s words, from a collective past or a shared culture. And this simultaneous sense of connection and rupture, to a large degree, plays out in how the work is experienced and felt by the visitor to the exhibition. In other words, there is a strong and undeniable ‘affective’ dimension to the sculptures in The High Dam. This is not only because they tap into our collective knowledge of symbols and rituals around funerals and death, but also because there is a violence and mourning encoded into these very objects and their display mechanisms – drawing our attention to the colonialist and neo-colonialist violence enacted on the Iraqi peoples and culture, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq and stretching back across hundreds of years of Western Imperialism.
The central focal point of the exhibition is a bitumen covered boat, which looks sticky and glistening perched high up on steel cradles, inviting the viewer to peer down over its rim at the contents nestled within. Inside, we see hand crafted objects including clay vessels and animal figurines with varying textured surfaces clustered together. The inspiration for this five-metre-long craft is a much smaller bitumen model boat in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery collection, stolen from an Ancient Akkadian gravesite (Akkad was the North-Western division of ancient Babylonia, it would now in part encompass the modern cities of Al-Fallūjah and Baghdad). The boat was believed to have been used as a ‘demon lure’ designed to trap and distract demons from pillaging grave goods. I felt compelled toward Alrai’s boat and its shimmering treasures, perhaps feeling an echo of the covetous impulses of my Western ancestors who permitted themselves to take liberally from the Akkadian tomb. This was coupled with a feeling of intrusion or incursion, of setting foot into a sacred place and of violation through my mere presence.
The choice of bitumen (a black viscous mixture obtained from petroleum distillation) to coat the vessel feels like a potent choice – a redolent cue to trigger thoughts of what was once below ground, and is now above. Since 2003, in the UK, it’s probable that the asphalt we move on, the exhaust fumes around us, and the plastic water bottle in our rucksacks are derived from oil extracted from beneath Iraq.
The element of the exhibition that lingered with me for the longest were the torn sheets of paper and cardboard lining the walls of the space. Covered in a crumbling residue, like a wash of gesso, gypsum or plaster, their surfaces felt reminiscent of palimpsests – manuscript pages where the text has been scraped clean away so that it can become host to a different document, story or history. In a very real sense, parts of Iraq’s written history are literally inaccessible to Alrai. Soul-crushingly, in 2003 the contents of Iraq’s national library and archives were destroyed during a blaze when the US-led coalition attacked the country. This military intervention unsettled the region and arguably prompted the formation of Daesh (the militant Islamist group), who have since destroyed further swathes of the country’s cultural heritage. These blank pages feel even more poignant given that the Arabic language used by ancient scribes and more modern-day Iraqi historians and writers is not a language that Alrai, though a fluent speaker since childhood, can either write or read (though she has been teaching herself over the past year).
‘Palimpsestic’ is an apt word to describe Alrai’s practice, in that her work is characterised by processes of adaptation, translation, and rewriting. There is a sense of the artist ‘working through’ and attempting to piece together a coherent sense of history from fragments in order to ‘glean a sense of identity from a residue’. She sees this as a process of acknowledgement and healing of past and present ruptures and traumas. But this is underscored with a forward-looking impulse; with one eye on the past and the other firmly fixed on the future. As Alrai explains:
How do I deal with this history that I’ve inherited that I’m lucky to have, which is such a big part of me? And how do I re-interpret that to make it something that can grow, and be added onto in terms of how I live my life or how generations after me might? In a way that draws on these personal histories but also these important wider political histories of this place that I both came from and didn’t come from, in a way, as I wasn’t born there and haven’t lived there…This imagination of new forms or these objects that touch on the past, and a past that is an ancient past as well, and how some of that can feed into the everyday and almost create a new mythology – as a way of understanding a duality in some sense.
This creation of a ‘new mythology’ involves the deployment of all of the artist’s skills, and there is a dazzling array of techniques and processes on display in The High Dam. Some are inherited, such as plastering techniques passed down the paternal line, and some learned more recently, such as the process of chemically treating polystyrene to give the impression of weathered stone or the blue-green patina of Verdigris copper. Alrai spoke about the ‘theatricality’ and ‘fakery’ of theatrical set design and museum dioramas that employ similar methods of making. However, her work avoids the cultural homogenisation and sanitising effects of these ‘disneyfied’ productions. Running through the heart of the work is a sincere yearning for connection and a desire to re-enchant and re-animate these histories, which can be sensed on a deeper level.
The High Dam is a potent and emotive installation that collapses multiple temporalities and spatialities; an assemblage that contains what Pollock calls distinct ‘sites of time’. If I was to encapsulate the feeling of walking around this carefully choreographed gathering of objects, I would liken it to a sense of entanglement and estrangement, co-existing powerfully in the same moment.
Holly Grange is a curator based in Leeds.
 Pollock, G. (2013a). After‐Effects | After‐Images: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation in the Virtual Feminist Museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.xxvii.