Profile by Jessica Holburn: Departed and Gone to the Unseen. June 2013

The cultural fear of the refugee has been fed by the media, which neglects to acknowledge any positive stories that come from it. The story of Saif Almurayati is aspirational, inspirational, unique – an exemplar of the hope and optimism that is fulfilled rather than quashed by long and often traumatic periods of detention. Saif was born in 1976 in Bagdad, Iraq. After the Gulf War in 1991 he was forced to leave his country to escape Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime. He then lived in refugee camps both in Iran and Turkey for a year, he then settled in Syria, Damascus, where he lived for seven years. In 1998 he migrated to Australia and spent the first years adapting to the new culture. In 2012 he graduated from the National Art School in Sydney and in the same year became winner of the MUA Blake Prize Award for Human Justice for his video work Unfolding History. The artist takes time out from his studio to talk about his past, his present and his future, and all of those tensions between… 

Saif is in a very good mood today as he’s just spent a few days alone out in the bush painting - clearly he’s a man who relishes solitude, yet he strikes me as being the opposite of introverted - he's convivial, pragmatic and humble. He tells me he’s never been good at networking, even though he’s an enthusiastic conversationalist on a one-on-one basis. A private person, what he will tell you is that he knows how fortunate he has been considering it was less difficult for his family than it is for others to migrate to Australia. The family had access to the United Nations once they reached Syria, where they stayed in a refugee camp. It was here that Saif was able to study English literature, encouraged by his mother, a teacher and his father, a general practitioner. Seven years later he and his family were granted visas as political refugees. 


After travelling and moving between countries, the concept of home became ambiguous for Saif. Art became a way for him to express himself and the sense of alienation. The realisation of what ‘home’ means, as in ‘safe and soft place to fall’, grew when he settled into the comforts of Australian life. Yet there remains a sense of loss and yearning that feeds into his art practice, a search for meaning beyond every bound land he finds himself in. 

A world without boundaries is something that was largely absent from his childhood memories: “Born in Iraq, as my father was a doctor and my mother a teacher, we led a relatively ‘comfortable’ lifestyle. Although my family was constantly subject to a continuing state of fear and repression, it was more about position and social status than any joy and happiness. I use the word ‘comfortable’ very loosely, if you can call being subject to daily bombings on the way to school ‘comfortable’. Born into a dictatorship, I became part of the uprising against the continuing repression. It was a stifling, suffocating environment.” 

Saif attended National Art School, where over four years he developed his technique. Saif had the opportunity to both meet and be mentored by Dr Stephen Little and Bill Wright. One of the most enlightening subjects he undertook was Aboriginal Studies, taught by Alex Tromph, increasing his understanding of Australian history and society. Perhaps he could identify in some way with the plight of our underprivileged classes, as his work continues to be an exploration of identity, loss, displacement, renewal and transience - all that comes with his being part of a cultural diaspora. It also opened new doors for him, granting him a residency in Paris. When he had his first exhibition in Paris, he was both delighted and humbled by the attendance of the Iraqi Ambassador, who selected two of Saif’s works to be displayed in the embassy in Paris. Unusual as the encounter was, this gesture was symbolic of a change, a reconciliation with his homeland and birthplace he had run from. 

It is an ongoing struggle for Saif to move beyond the surface of complex themes that have emerged from the ambivalent experience of being between cultures. Text is a significant aspect of his work, allowing him to become a kind of spiritual alchemist. The crescendo of calligraphy that accumulates across these canvases inspires a meditative sense of ritual, harmony and optimism. Saif’s exploration of language conveys an affiliation with and yearning for the culture from his past that enriches an understanding of his present. He arrives at a discovery that while each culture has the veneer of difference, the core of humanity remains the same.

It’s no wonder that Saif identifies with the provocative art of Anselm Kiefer, each creating art with a maximalist, ritualistic approach. Their canvases are loaded with layers, blurring the tension between commemoration and obliteration, each born into a sense of chaos. It’s Kiefer’s fearless choice of subject matter that inspired Saif to develop a methodology of his own. What he takes from Kiefer’s work is the fact that history repeats itself over and over again and yet humanity as a whole is failing to learn, failing to remember. Saif shares in Kiefer’s disdain for the dogmatism of religious institutions, he shares the view that there is no single, universal truth, as languages have evolved over time, art evolves, humanity evolves. While Kiefer has become more focused on the idea of mankind in the face of entropy, Saif locates himself somewhere between this and the desire for a sense of purpose in life, understanding that truth is subjective and open to interpretation. 

Arte Povera was a pivotal avant-garde movement in late 60s and early 70s Italy and there are artists who still associate with this practice today, setting about the destabilisation of cultural systems. These artists set about the destabilisation of cultural systems and their subsequent signs through explorations of space and language. Almurayati’s dynamic and energetic compositions juxtapose order and disorder, showing the way chaos emerges from established signifiers, detaching them from their original intentions and rethinking them in new ways. Looking at his large scale canvases is a daunting and somewhat haunting experience. On the other hand, it’s also a spiritually appeasing experience. There is a sense of time passing, of doing and undoing, of becoming and unbecoming, of echoing and whispering voices, of hymns. Almurayati prefers large scale canvases because he finds he can express himself with more creative freedom, the sky is the limit. Small canvases intimidate him, he doesn’t know where to start. 

Saif’s approach is totally organic, when an idea forms in his head he is unstoppable. His use of materials will vary, and in some stages, the artwork takes on a life of its own. He explains his process as being “a passionate conversation”. Often he will do his calligraphy while blindfolded, to express himself from a more subconscious, intuitive level, finding the painting through the process. Almurayati also works in ceramics and wood, as he views these mediums as the least processed material to work with. His photography deals with the notion of surface; colours diluting, disintegrating, evaporating, rippling. It's almost as though he’s linking the insides of the human body to aerial landscapes, as a mixture of earth and blood. 

Saif's installation work also deals with surfaces; there is a kind of concealment at play, where objects are enigmatically wrapped in the midst of tugging and twisting movements. It’s as though he is conveying an internal state of mind that is being stifled, denied breath. In another installation piece it's as though a bomb has gone off inside a TV set, filled with decaying, flaking, burnt out, wax-like surfaces. The build -p of clay, paint, tea and coffee stains, and other recycled objects that reflect daily life, culminate in something uncannily eerie. These bodies of work hark back to a period of his life, the uprising in 1991 against Saddam Hussein, a reflection upon his journey of self-survival in Iraq: “I’m trying to represent the futility and suffering of war. The tugging and twisting subjects you see in my work are symbolic of the emotional chaos created by the internal conflict between the desire to stay and fight and the need to flee to stay alive.” 

The decaying, flaking surfaces he creates represents a life lived in transit, masses fleeing their oppressive circumstances, in conjunction with the emotional turmoil experienced throughout such a journey: “When we crossed the border between Iraq and Turkey, it was this reality check on the sheer physicality of war. We were being bombarded from the air, while also having to cope with the soldiers on the ground and the hazards of land mines. A lot of people lost their lives, their homes. The whole landscape turned into a mixture of earth and blood.” And now that the struggle is to an extent history, how has this come to shape Saif’s artistic philosophy? “Art depicts life. Life is about a discovery that we are all different, but our similarities outweigh our differences. Although we can still believe in different religions, speak different languages, possess diverse cultural backgrounds, essentially, we are all human beings living in an increasingly smaller world. Consequently our exposure to cultural transmutations are abundant, frequent and ubiquitous. Life is about respecting others rights to their own choices, learning from each other, understanding, acceptance and tolerance.” 

Saif has gone from living a life of danger, uncertainty and struggle, to a life as an artist and wanderer. His recent travels have taken him to Paris, Nice, Barcelona, Rome and Dubai, giving him inspiration for his own art. Yet I can’t help but wonder how different his future would have been had he not had a bravely dissident and open-minded upbringing. Fear is something most of us only ever see at a distance on TV, but here we have an artist who has lived through that, not to ask for sympathy, rather to offer us something more than mere sentiment. Saif is an artist who is not the least bit interested in marketing himself. He just wants to experiment and do unpredictable things and will always resist those who try to mould him into a product. If somebody asks him to do more of the same thing, he’ll do the opposite, because being consistent and recognisable is not his schtick. He is all about challenging himself, and therefore, the viewer. As he walks away from our meeting, you get the sense that this is a man going places, but neither he nor I can possibly know where he’ll go next, and there’s something quite exhilarating in that. 

Saif Almurayati has his first solo exhibition in Sydney at Janet Clayton Gallery, 2 Danks Street, Waterloo, from July 3 to July 27, 2013