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Kunsthal KAdE regularly focuses its attention on outstanding individual oeuvres. In the autumn of 2021 we present two parallel solo exhibitions focusing on the work of Sadik Kwaish Alfraji and Natasja Kensmil: 'In Search of Lost Baghdad' of Alfraji and 'A Poison Tree' of Kensmil. While Kensmil has had previous shows in the Netherlands, none has presented a cross-section of her entire output. Alfraji has participated in various international projects but has had no solo show in the Netherlands since 2010. His expressionistic drawings explore his memories of and connection with Iraq and reflect on his history of migration. Kensmil produces highly condensed pictorial narratives in the form of contemporary ‘history paintings’, usually on emotionally charged subjects.

From 2 October until 21 November Museum Flehite is to hold a show of graphic works by Alfraji. The title of this exhibition is 'Baghdad - Amersfoort'. The approximately 100 etchings, woodcuts, drawings and paintings in that exhibition date from the 1980s and relate both to the Iran-Iraq War and to themes like love and freedom.

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, portretfoto: B&W. Natasja Kensmil, portretfoto: Paul Andriesse
Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, portrait photo: B&W. Natasja Kensmil, portrait photo: Paul Andriesse

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji (b. 1960)

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji has been based in Amersfoort since the 1990s. His work looks back to his original home city of Baghdad and focuses on his personal and family history of displacement. His chosen forms of artistic expression are animations, videos, installations, paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs. Memories are a powerful motor for reflecting on his personal history. 'For me,’ he says, ‘art begins with an idea, an image, a memory, a social or political event, a normal everyday scene or an emotion.’

Tryptich on migration history

The exhibition at Kunsthal KAdE will comprise video works and works on paper produced mainly over the last five years. For the first time Alfraji is showing the works from the second part of a triptych about the migration history of his family and himself: Books of Passage. The second chapter, titled Those Houses Behind the Army Canal, consists of several parts, all about the Al Thawrah neighborhood in Baghdad where his father moved and where Sadik grew up: an animation film, two large paintings, a series of painted etchings , a series of small painted street scenes and a film about the neighbourhood. The first part, The River That Was in the South, was exhibited in 2020 in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and concerned the family's migration from southern Iraq to Baghdad. The third part, still to be developed, will deal with Alfraji's own migration to the Netherlands.

Hadiqat al Umma

The display in Kunsthal KAdE’s main gallery will centre on Alfraji’s monumental, nine-piece video work Once Upon a Time, Hadiqat Al Umma. The nine screens show fragments of artworks in a Baghdad park, together with a photo of the artist as a child, all surrounded by swirling visual motifs that are vehicles of memory.

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Ali's Boat (video still), 2014, courtesy the artist

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Ali's Boat (video still), 2014, animation video, 6'37'', courtesy the artist

Ali's Boat

Other series created since the artist’s emigration to the Netherlands likewise feature memories of the artist’s homeland and family. Ali’s Boat, for example, is based on a letter given to Alfraji by his young nephew during a visit to Baghdad. Ali had drawn a boat and written ‘I wish my letter takes me to you’. The artist dreamed about escaping on an identical boat and was inspired to create Ali’s Boat, a multidisciplinary work about universal human longings.

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Embroilment, 1984, ets & Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, The Last Choice, 1984, houtsnede
Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Embroilment, 1984, etching & Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, The Last Choice, 1984, woodcut, courtesy the artist

The etchings and drawings on show at Museum Flehite were produced by Alfraji in 1980s Iraq and explore the country’s violent conflict with neighbouring Iran. Their figurative style made them too politically challenging to exhibit in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein.

Alfraji’s work has previously been exhibited at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, in the Iraqi pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, in a show of Iraqi art at Moma PS1 in New York and at Videobrasil in Sao Paulo. The exhibition at KAdE will be accompanied by a catalogue in English.

Natasja Kensmil, Jenny en Karl (Marx), 2009, courtesy andriesse ~ eyck galerie
Natasja Kensmil, Jenny and Karl (Marx), 2009, oil on linen, 150 x 150 cm, courtesy andriesse ~ eyck gallery

Natasja Kensmil (1973)

This is the first such extensive cross-section of Natasja Kensmil’s work ever exhibited in the Netherlands. Previous shows focused mainly on individual series. The highly detailed narratives with which Kensmil fills her large canvases draw on collective history and the artist’s own past. Her stories feature leitmotifs in the form of antitheses such as power and powerlessness, the earthly and the spiritual, and violence and sacrifice.

The title of the exhibition 'A Poison Tree' refers to a poem by the English poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827). In the poem, suppressed feelings of anger grow into a deep-seated hatred that takes the form of a tree on which a beautiful, but poisonous, apple grows.

From early works to recent series
The works on show in Kunsthal KAdE’s upper-floor exhibition areas will range from Kensmil’s earliest works, produced in the late 1990s, to recent series such as Martyrs Mirror. This is a series of silkscreen prints about the martyrdoms of Anabaptists (members of a Christian movement of the Radical Reformation). The work is based on an eponymous seventeenth-century book on the subject by Thieleman van Braght. Another such series is Sleeping Beauty, based on post-mortem child portrait photographs of the nineteenth century. Kensmil paints them in all their serenity. In a catalogue from the Stevenson Gallery of South Africa, she says:

“I believe that the soul lives on in the portraits of the dead. The spirits of the children wander; they try to escape their failed lives and to flee their loneliness. I explore the realm of the living that overlaps with that of the ghosts, the underworld...’’

 Natasja Kensmil, Nicolaas II and Alexandra, olieverf op doek, 2008, 260 x 140 cm, courtesy andriesse-eyck galerie

 Natasja Kensmil, Nicolaas II and Alexandra, 2008, oil on linen, 260 x 140 cm, courtesy andriesse ~ eyck gallery

In little over twenty years, Natasja Kensmil has created an oeuvre in which she presents history as an inextricable part of the present. Motifs – often based on concrete historical or art historical sources – are overlaid or emerge from thick layers of paint. At first glance black-and-white, her images are actually in blueish or greenish black with endless shades of grey. What at first seems monochrome is in fact full of detail and nuance.

Natasja Kensmil is represented by andriesse ~ eyck gallery. Her work has featured in a number of museum exhibitions in the Netherlands and was the subject of a 2013 retrospective at Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy. It is currently on show in the 'Monument of Regents' exhibition in the Amsterdam Museum wing of Hermitage Amsterdam and a new work by Kensmil will be on display from 11 September in the Fries Museum’s 'Icons' exhibition. The show at Kunsthal KAdE will be accompanied by a book on her entire oeuvre, published by Alauda Publications and Kunsthal KAdE.

Natasja Kensmil, Schwarzkopf, 1999, BECHT COLLECTION
Natasja Kensmil, Schwarzkopf, 1998, oil on canvas, 186 x 145 cm, BECHT COLLECTION

The exhibitions are curated by Robbert Roos, director of Kunsthal KAdE and Lara Stolwerk, assistant curator at Kunsthal KAdE, in collaboration with the artists.