Having experienced the hardships of war for most of her life, celebrated artist Hanaa Malallah found in art a way out — both figuratively and literally.

Born in Iraq in 1958, Malallah suffered through the political instability of the early years of the republic: the coup d’états, the war with Iran, the UN sanctions, all the way to the American invasion and occupation in 2003.

After getting her BA in Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad, Malallah later earned an MA and PhD from the University of Baghdad. It was during this time that she became interested in semiotics, logic, and mathematics, exploring the idea of representing concepts through the use of numbers. Eventually, she developed her own numerical signature — each number corresponding to an Arabic letter — which she has used since on all her artworks.

A Moment of Light by Hanaa Malallah. Image courtesy of the artist.

For most of the 90s, traditional art materials became scarce due to sanctions on Iraq after the country’s leader, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait. Thus, Malallah learned to work with whatever she could find — paper, wire, wood, even bullets, which she would burn and distress. Unbeknownst to her, she was developing what she later conceptualized as her “Ruins Technique”, a method born out of the destruction of war. A Moment Of Light, a work made of burnt canvas, cotton thread, glass and mild carbon steel on wood, is a magnificent example of this technique.

“This does not mean that I am reproducing the idea of war. Instead, I am utilizing its intrinsically destructive process to engender the visceral experience of the reality of war irrespective of its geographic/political particular,” she explains.

Living through constant conflict, Malallah continued working as an artist and professor at the Institute of Fine Arts and the University of Baghdad. However, between 2006 and 2007, a time of peak violence in Baghdad, many professionals including doctors and professors started being murdered.

After being offered an artist residency in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Malallah left her home in 2006 for what was supposed to be a short stay, but the violence back home only worsened. After Paris, Malallah moved to London where she currently resides.

She/He Has No Picture by Hannah Malallah at MoMA PS1. Image courtesy of Walter Wlodarczyk/The New York Times.

While still living in Iraq, Malallah witnessed one of the most horrifying tragedies imaginable. On the 13th of February 1991, an aerial bombing attack by the U.S. Air Force killed 408 civilians that were taking cover at a public shelter in the Amiriyah neighborhood of Baghdad. This became the largest number of civilian casualties in a single incident during Operation Desert Storm.

A few months after the event, Malallah visited the shelter. “The images etched themselves deeply into my heart, and a strong desire to memorialise the dead of Al Amiriyah took up residence in my soul,” she writes.

However, it would take time for her to feel ready to do so. Almost three decades later, in 2019, Malallah produced one of her most moving exhibitions, She/He Has No Picture, a wall installation commemorating these victims, echoing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

Since only 100 people out of the 408 deceased had a picture to their name, the artist used different methods in order to represent every single one of them. She/He Has No Picture is a mixture of several of her most beloved techniques: portraits made of Calico fabric through the Ruins Technique, names translated into numbers, and digital portraits reconstructed out of the available descriptions.

Hanaa Malallah. Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums.

Even though conflict is just one of the many themes in the works of Hanaa Malallah, its influence is fundamental, its presence palpable. When discussing the new generation of artists in Iraq she remarks, “They are like me before, they physically taste this violence.” Her past cannot be a distant memory when it is now the present of other people.

Art can emerge from the darkest places and moments, shining a light on what is painful to see, but most importantly, to give hope to those in sorrow.

Find out more about the work of Hanaa Malallah on her website.

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