by Heather Zises
Iranian-born artist Sahar Khalkhalian forges large-scale, gestural paintings that seethe with raw emotion. Exploring themes of identity loss, memory, and displacement, each motif carries a personal, historic, and cultural significance to the artist. Having suffered the psychological perils of the Iran-Iraq War at the tender age of eight, the experience left indelible scars on her psyche. Five years later, Khalkhalian and her sister immigrated to Germany, filling her with feelings of identity loss and cultural displacement. To discover a new sense of self, the artist turned to the easel as an outlet. As a result, her paintings function as emotional blueprints that aim to anchor her feelings of placelessness.
Potent and visceral, Khalkhalian’s work is based on observations of people who are isolated, both physically and mentally. Her creative capital is borne out of a meditative process in which the artist mines her extreme emotional states—either feelings of euphoria or severe melancholia—to execute potent imagery upon the picture plane. By working only during these times, she can maintain authenticity in her practice that reflects what she is trying to convey instead of having to search for select emotions.
Khalkhalian works in series with evocative titles like “War and Peace,” “Turbulent,” and “Life Crossword,” all of which are deeply connected to her life’s experiences. Over time, Khalkhalian has developed a highly distinctive painterly language inspired by post-modernity and spare Minimalism. This reductive vocabulary translates into anonymous figures and forms, set against monochromatic backgrounds. The absence of features on faces works to emphasize the figure’s general look and form, potentially leaving viewers the option to see themselves. Curiosities of diverse cultures from the past to the present appear throughout Khalkhalian’s canvases, recalling iconic styles like Picasso’s cubist motifs and penchant for a grisaille palette, to the signature strokes of Julian Opie with thick black lines and very little detail.
Khalkhalian’s upcoming solo show at Agora this season focuses on figures that have gradually stepped out of isolation while exploring issues of solitude and loneliness. In her current series “Naked Immigrants,” she examines the loss of identity that immigrants experience when they are forced to leave their homes. Working mostly in acrylic, Khalkhalian renders faceless figures grouped together in isolation that symbolize identity loss. Seemingly floating in color fields of vermillion, aquamarine, and saffron, clusters of muted-toned figures reveal the severe underpinnings of displacement and loss. Gone are their beloved homes, friends and family, and the ubiquity of their native tongue. Stripped of all things familiar, they are forced to restart their lives completely naked. Their sculpted, blank faces represent a silence that will echo deep within, encased in solitude.
The process of immigration is seemingly endless, and it occurs in stages. The Gamble of Destiny, 2021 symbolizes the beginning of the journey. A grey mass of faceless figures all but spill out of an orange lifeboat, various limbs dangling over the sides like strands of spaghetti in a pot. The pyramidal composition—which recalls Picasso’s Guernica (an iconic opus portraying a generic plea against the barbarity of terror and war) can be loosely divided into two groups. The first vignette is comprised of lonely, weary travelers who lean upon one another for support. The second group is made up of a parent and their two children, with arms protectively wrapped around each child. As the viewer absorbs this raft of despair, they must navigate a turbulent reality, one that may not allow asylum seekers into another country for legal reasons. In some places, it is much more difficult to arrive by lorry, therefore, people have switched to small boats. Nonetheless, whatever method is selected is dangerous and high risk.
The Lost Faces, 2021 recalls the next part of the journey, one that begins with the requirement of a simple portrait photograph upon entry to a new country. These photos—often referred to as “resident alien” ID cards—do not help with assimilation because the images present these faces as “alien” to the new country without much understanding that they are people with important roles like mother, wife, sister, human being and so forth. Khalkhalian illustrates this narrative by presenting eight Picassoid faces in various stages of decomposition. Whereas some portraits show only half a face, others have no cheeks or are generally “alien” looking. Alternatively, perhaps this study is only of one person; like the serial portraiture paintings by Francis Bacon, where the subject eerily fades and dissolves into the background due to existential agony.
Waiting Room, 2021 feels somewhat interchangeable in the timeline of the immigration path. This haunting diptych could take place before or after getting on a boat, plane, or train to a new land. Overall, migrant women face significant disparities with an additional layer of complexity and require different intervention strategies.
The effects of language and cultural differences, lack of access to transportation, and financial barriers are at play. Khalkhalian depicts these grim realities by plucking six faceless women, stripped bare of their dignity, from a private sphere of undress and placing them into a public domain. Light from an unseen source saturates the left panel of the diptych but, quickly becomes murky on the right panel. The piece is open to many interpretations, one being that it is an allusion to the cycle of Life, reinforced by the order of the women, who have been grouped into pairs, youngest to oldest. Occupying the left side of the panel is the first set of women who hold hands and appear to have swollen bellies due to pregnancy, suggesting youth. The second pair are divided between the two panels but are fused by their torsos, implying a familial relationship as twins or sisters, and their constant need for mutual support in life. The third pair of women hover in the shadows of the right panel, one leaning against the other, suggesting sheer exhaustion from life’s trials as a female immigrant. True to its namesake, the women who populate this painting are trapped in a metaphorical waiting room, knowing that in most cases not much time or hope is left for them.
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Haunting and harrowing, Khalkhalian delivers artworks that carry out a collective voice about themes of displacement, loss of humanity, and trauma which are difficult to express with words alone.