Through his artworks, Lebanese artist Abed Al Kadiri makes a powerful statement against war and violence

The violence that exploded in the aftermath of the Arab Spring pervades Abed Al Kadiri’s work. The 31-year-old Lebanese artist, who recently moved back to Beirut after many years in Kuwait and a short stint in London, looked to the horrific humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian and Iraqi wars to create heart-wrenching artworks.

Three years in the making, Al Kadiri’s newest works were unveiled in February at Mark Hachem Gallery in Downtown Beirut, in an exhibition entitled Ashes to the Sea.

“I was pained by what was happening in Syria, and at the same time I was refusing to see,” says Al Kadiri. But when Syrian migrants started drowning on their desperate journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach European shores, their plight suddenly bore right into Al Kadiri’s soul — he had almost drowned himself when he was nine, and he had also experienced the horrors of war, growing up in Lebanon in the late 1980s. Like the migrants, he also fled from Lebanon in 2006, to escape the Israeli onslaught. “Personal experience influenced my desire to create these paintings,” Al Kadiri says.

His States of Anxiety series of works, made from ink and cigarette ashes on tissue paper, formed part of the exhibition. “I used tissue paper because I wanted a very fragile medium,” says Al Kadiri, adding that tissues are often used to wipe away tears and are associated with grief. The resulting works feature bleak, haunting faces, with indistinguishable features, as the artist seems to reference the fragility and finality of the migrant experience — Syrians escape their ancestral lands and leave behind bits and pieces of their burnt souls.

Another work, the monumental At Sea, which measures 5.4 by 2.7 metres, took the artist seven months to complete. This key painting — a Guernica for the 21st century — ties all of Al Kadiri’s new pieces together, depicting a nightmarish, violently colourful vision of migrants on inflatable rafts, men at sea braving the waves and a particularly gripping portrayal of a black-clad figure carrying a dead body to shore.

Ashes to the Sea was Al Kadiri’s second major exhibition dealing with violence. His previous solo exhibition, Al-Maqama 2014, shown in 2015 at Dar Al Funoon in Kuwait, took the destruction of the Mosul Museum by ISIS as a starting point, and ended up in an exploration of 13th-century Iraqi artist Mahmud Al-Wasiti, contrasting his stupendous cultural contributions with the irreparable devastation caused by ISIS.

Although Al Kadiri’s themes are ripped from today’s headlines, his take on war, refugees and exile is deeply personal. “I look at media images and transform them into artworks that document a very violent moment, while exploring the emotions caused by these images,” he explains.

Looking at the future, Al Kadiri believes that his work will become even more intimate. “I want to speak about my own memories and experiences,” he says, “things I witnessed and couldn’t talk about before in fear of making my personal issues public. I want to focus on my individual experience and inner world.”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Creative Issue #36, pages 74-77.