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Issue 238

Ali Kaaf’s Acts of Erasure

At Darat Al Funun, Amman, the artist uses abstraction to address troubled histories

BY Nadine Khalil in Exhibition Reviews | 30 AUG 23

Playing with the notions of shelter and void implicit in its title, Ali Kaaf’s I Know the Emptiness of This House (2023) is a cage-like sculpture in which metal bars frame a single entrance/exit. Made for his eponymous solo exhibition at Darat Al Funun in Amman, this site-specific interpretation of the eighth-century desert castle Quseir Amra upends the original building’s triple-vaulted ceiling to create three merged cylindrical forms. The ceilings of Quseir Amra, which was built for the Umayyad caliph Walid Ibn Yazid in Jordans Eastern Desert, are known for its elaborate frescoes depicting constellations as well as scenes of hunting, bathing and female nudity. By eliminating these forms of figuration, Kaaf’s abstraction places troubled histories around representation and aniconism from early Islamic times into question.

Ali Kaaf, I Know the Emptiness of This House, 2023, powder coated and raw metal pipes. Courtesy: the artist

This act of omission signals a development from his early meditations on black ink as absence, as seen in the show’s oldest monochrome piece, Aswad (2002–3), meaning ‘black’ in Arabic. Although he was a student of the late Berlin-based Syrian expressionist painter Marwan Kassab-Bachi during Darat’s first Summer Academy in 1999, Kaaf would go on to develop a minimal language of abstract elliptical shapes by using fire to create layers, tears and cavities in his canvases. A selection of works from this series are presented in one central room of the exhibition, highlighting their evolution. In Rift 6 (2017), for instance, burned paper edges outline two shadowy forms within a black ink blob, while in Rift 7 (2018), two uneven semicircles divided by a frayed rupture merge, the larger encapsulating the smaller. Despite the apparent simplicity of these works, there is something painterly about the way Kaaf juxtaposes textured black ink with the jagged contours of burned paper.

Ali Kaaf, Aswad, 2002–03, pigment and charcoal on paper. Courtesy: the artist

More recently, however, the artist has embraced controlled incisions, laser-cutting and photomontage. This is exemplified in The Byzantine Corner 10 (2023), where ornate architectural elements from Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Mosque are presented in large-scale apostrophes and commas. While the layered feeling of a form-inside-a-form resonates with his ‘Rift’ series (2011–ongoing), no space is left empty, the over-wrought aesthetic perhaps driven by a need to document. Yet, this impulse is not without manipulation: as with I Know the Emptiness of This House, in a 90-degree rotation he repositions the image of the ceiling vertically instead of horizontally.

Ali Kaaf, ‘I Know the Emptiness of This House’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Darat Al Funun, Amman

The short video Box of Pain (2016) shows how the movement – and, at times, excision – of materials can reflect loaded histories. A black, submerged fabric quivers in water. It is the abstraction of the artist’s memory of the moment when a young boy stopped moving while being beaten up by militiamen in Syria in 2013. There are white flecks in the wet fabric akin to the surfaces of Kaaf’s black and white paintings, and a reflective pool of water distorts the image, opening up bright, uneven gaping holes like those burned into his canvases.

Ali Kaaf, ‘I Know the Emptiness of This House’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Darat Al Funun, Amman

Another video, Scherben mantra (2013), sees the artist moving over a broken mirror, trying – yet failing – to pick up shards while fragments remain stuck to his fingers, like the residues of destruction in his native country. Kaaf’s actions recall the unexpected gentleness of the titular character from Edward Scissorhands (1990), who had sharp tools in place of hands. Within the framework of this troubled history, the artist seems to suggest that abstraction is not a choice. While one element of Kaaf’s work investigates architectural ornamentation and the other removes all signifiers, both are part of an editorializing need to cut and burn away unwanted parts – an erasure of image and memory.

Ali Kaaf’s I Know the Emptiness of this House, is on view at Darat al Funun, Amman, until 30 September.

Main image: Ali Kaaf, I Know the Emptiness of This House (detail), 2023, powder coated and raw metal pipes. Courtesy: the artist

Nadine Khalil is a writer, editor and researcher based in Dubai, UAE.