Portrait

Artist Rushdi Anwar on the idea of home in a world of migrants and refugees. By Jennifer Down.

Healing wounds

I meet Rushdi Anwar in his studio at a university building in Melbourne’s CBD. I climb a wooden staircase three flights and wait to be buzzed in at the heavy door.

The first question I have as I greet him is about the pronunciation of his name. Until now, our correspondence has been via email and text message.
Is it Rushdi, or Rooshdi, or—?

He grins broadly, raises and drops his shoulders. “It’s up to you.”

“It’s your name,” I say, abashed. “It’s up to you.”

“It’s an Egyptian name, and they say Rushdi” – as in brush – “but where I come from, Kurdistan, even my family says Rooshdi. So it doesn’t matter which way.”

The gentle and easygoing way he handles my question – and my instinctive desire to seek a simple, fixed answer – is emblematic of Anwar’s whole demeanour. In fact, he rarely stops smiling during our entire conversation.

He leads me down a rabbit warren of corridors, whitewashed walls beneath naked fluorescent tubes. He occupies one of several studios alongside other PhD candidates. He works with his back to the door. On his laptop screen is a dense mass of text. On a foldable table by the door sit dozens of black grenades, no bigger than the palm of my hand. They are immaculately arranged in rows; I suspect that if I were to measure the distance between each of the plastic toys, it would be exact.

Anwar has two installation works, Hanging Issues and Expel, exhibited as part of the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival. Hanging Issues uses kadah saa, a traditional paper-making technique from northern Thailand. Anwar takes documentary photographs from the 1988 chemical weapons attack in Halabja, his birthplace, and embeds them in each sheet of paper.

“I printed out the photos and left them around my study, and let them accumulate dust and marks. Sometimes they’d get crumply. Then I’d photograph them again. Then I embed them in the paper. The idea is that the photographs are inside, rather than glued, like a collage.”

The result is stunning.

“That’s something I try to achieve. If you look at the photos embedded, part of the photo is revealed, and a part is hidden. A part is in ambiguity.”

The installation’s title was important for Anwar, who enjoys wordplay. “There’s the physical hanging of the installations, [like] how you would hang your clothes – impermanent, casual, not fixed. The other thing is punishment. And the last one I found in the dictionary – ‘to hang someone to dry out’, which is, if I’m not wrong, to punish someone to go through a difficult situation without support or care.”

Central to Anwar’s work is the juxtaposition of hostility versus humanity. Speaking about the kadah saa, he is alight. “Renewal” is a word he repeats several times. With Hanging Issues, he says, “my aim was to transform this suffering and hostility to something warm, through the paper. [The finished product] has a sense of fragility and care.” He’s precise in his use of language. Sometimes his sentences are like aphorisms. (“Revenge is fixing a problem with a problem,” he declares at one point.)

“I think it’s in the nature of humans, when we go through difficult times – we have a capability to recover. But we don’t forget. The wound is there. If we survive, we survive with it. We become healthy again, but sometimes the wound leaves a scar. That’s my aim. I’m showing the scar in order to seek harmony, rather than revenge.”

The other installation is Ihral (Expel), which has a destroyed wooden chair set above a floor covered in black pigment. His work often features domestic objects. The chair, he says, symbolises comfort and rest.

“It’s a reference to home – your country or place you associate with, loaded with feeling and memory. But I burned the chair; I dismantled it. If your home is dysfunctional, you have to seek a different chair to sit in.”

The black pigment, too, is crucial. If you try to sit in the chair, “physically, you’ll get dirty”, he says, “and you don’t want to be.”

I can’t help but consider the unconscionable treatment of asylum seekers by this country; the hundreds of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean as they tried to flee war zones and crises only the week before. What happens, I ask, if the chair you eventually find is uncomfortable or unusable?

“The process of seeking a new place to sit is not an easy task,” Anwar says. Same pleasant, even tone. “Every single second is uncertain. I went through this myself. I try to address that in a poetic way. But in [Ihral], the new chair is not present.” Like much of his work, it invites engagement. “I don’t want the subject matter to be a conclusion. The hope is in the background to the image. When I see the dark, I appreciate the light. That’s the beauty of art, or culture in general.”

Before I leave, I gesture to the rows of grenades. May I ask about them?

“The grenades?” He picks one up absently, turns it over in his hand. “I found it in the dollar shop. I just bought one. For a long time I had it on my desk. I thought it was strange – people create toys from these ugly things.”

He tells me about a series of photographs taken by a friend of a child in Kurdistan playing with discarded weapons.

He plans to use the grenades in an installation, hung low to the ground: he holds out a hand to demonstrate, flat palm, at the eye-level of an imaginary toddler. He’s not yet happy with the concept, though. “It’s too direct.” Faced with the unambiguous violence of a hundred black toy grenades, he frets, a viewer might become passive, less likely to make their own deductions.

Outside, the street is bright. There’s a cold, gusty wind as I start up Franklin Street. I’m thinking about the photos of the chemical weapons massacre, black-and-white horror embedded like shrapnel in the pulp of the paper, so lovingly made. I’m thinking about memory traces.

A few days later, Anwar emails me copies of the photographs he mentioned. The child in the images is no older than three. He wears a mud-spattered helmet many sizes too large and a check lumberjack shirt, rolled at the cuffs. He crouches in the dust. In one photo he stares at the camera from beneath earnest brows. In the other he has the hint of a cheeky half-smile. His shadow is long. He is a child.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Healing wounds". Subscribe here.

Jennifer Down
is the author of Our Magic Hour and the forthcoming Pulse Points.