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To like Anna Boghiguian’s work, one must embrace its messy, grimy quality. In an interview for Bidoun magazine conducted with Robert Shapazian on the terrace of her home in Egypt, the Armenian-Egyptian artist discussed these very elements in her work. ‘I think it’s necessary to show we are doing art for the masses of the world’, she said while suggesting that her work was not about depicting what Shapazian termed ‘cleanliness, order, clarity’, and referring to her lifelong preoccupation with history and the impact of imperialism.
In Boghiguian’s first solo exhibition in the United States, The Loom of History, at the New Museum, the besmirched quality of her art set the tone for her show. Yellow hand-painted texts resembling hastily scribbled cheat sheets adorned the black walls of the gallery. They revealed Boghiguian’s acute investigation of history through her poetic referral to the ear—as the first organ to register the oppression of emperors and the destruction of culture.
The ear listens
The ear is one lobe of The Brain
but another dissects the information received by the ear.
and searches for the truth
assuming what is received is false or an illusion…
The theme of inequality loomed large in Boghiguian’s exhibition and was conveyed through numerous highly charged emotive impressions of world politics that reference contemporary far-right nationalism, as well as wars, demonstrations, and colonial crusades through the centuries. A series of surreal collages on paper, In the World: East and West, North and South 1 (2017), consisting of paper cut-outs, text, and painted forms displayed in wooden beehive frames, depicted autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi, sheikhs, Mao, and Donald Trump in grisly settings filled with animals and a deeply subjective vocabulary of shapes evoking turmoil. Even the bright red mixed media works on canvas, Brains I (2017), tacked on the dark walls of the large space, resembled mangled innards and a hot, fiery state of mind.
Like an activist on a mission, Boghiguian compelled us to relook at the past. One could not escape history here, especially not from her encaustic paper cut-outs of protests on stilts, Demonstration (2017) and Procession (2017), occupying the middle section of the gallery. Resembling rough-hewn puppets from afar, the cut-outs, seen in conjunction with the artist’s yellow printed wall notes, which refer to the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America, written after his visit to the United States in the 19th century, echo his prediction that inequities will arise in our society when the focus of individualism completely overshadows the idea of community. Reminiscent of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, the cut-outs of ordinary coloured people seeking basic rights, were a reminder of how much more needs to be accomplished.
But it is the representations of the human condition that brought force and vigour to Boghiguian’s work. Much like the intensity of German Expressionism, Boghiguian’s unconventional non-monumental paintings and accompanying reflective texts, combusted with the long-forgotten histories of oppression. Woven Winds: The making of an economy – costly commodities (2016) traces the inception of the colonial spice trade in Asia and the British acquisition of New York from the Dutch in the 17th century. The text and crude child-like images brought the misery of slaves, who were traded daily like commodities and were essential to the city’s prosperity—from its construction to its trade—back to life.
Boghiguians’s exhibition was a much-needed immersion in history. Vital, complex, and thought-provoking, her work is driven by the world in which we live and its inequities. Influenced by her world travels, newspaper clippings and television stills with arcane references to Nietzsche’s philosophy, her images mutate into strange creatures that penetrate the subterranean levels of one’s consciousness. All the while, Boghiguian tackles burdensome subject matter without being heavy-handed—and her response to these indignities is hard to forget.
Anna Boghiguian, Woven Winds: The making of an economy – costly commodities, 2016. Pencil, watercolour, ink and gouache on paper, 13 cutouts, various dimensions. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut.
Anna Boghiguian, Brains I, 2017. Mixed media on canvas, 50.3 x 38.5in (128 x 98 m). Private collection.
Anna Boghiguian, exhibition view The People’s People, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut. Photograph Volker Renner.
Anna Boghiguian, Woven Winds: The making of an economy - costly commodities, 2016. Pencil, watercolor, and gouache on paper, 11.6 x 16.4 in (29.5 x 41.8 cm). Private collection.