The Fabric of Memory

The ruling principle in the work of Fatima Barznge is memory. In her paintings and works on paper she revisits the places, objects and atmospheres of a birthplace, cultural world and childhood to which return is impossible. Barznge grew up in Aghjalar, a rural village in Iraqi Kurdistan completely destroyed in 1988 in the Anfal war campaign, soon after the family’s departure. She studied business administration in Baghdad and in 1997 fled for political reasons and settled in the Netherlands where she graduated cum laude from the Royal Academy of Art (The Hague) in 2005.

The works are grouped together in series, in a sustained tension ranging from abstracted figuration to wholly nonrepresentational works. Many have highly worked, shimmering surfaces, networks built up of hatchings, dashes, darts and barbs, or small glaze-like patches of colour. The tissue of painstakingly interlaced markings evokes in both texture and method the traditional weaving workshops she attended as a child. The calm, repetitive activity of making seems intimately related to the work of memory and the working-through of the past.

In the figurative works landscapes or things are faintly discernible. Ghostly objects – a ceramic pot, a traditional cabinet, a patterned mosque curtain – are blurrily cut out and suspended in the centre of the composition, removing them from their domestic context, like dream images floating in the mind. Details from landscapes scarred by industrial exploitation, drought or war are isolated through close cropping. The landscape of trauma appears most explicitly in a series of highly worked textile collages, where the incorporated cloth (Kurdish headscarves with traditional printed or woven patterns) alludes to the fraught political reality that erupted in the destruction represented. There are lyrical painterly excursions, as when a first visit back to Aghjalar prompted a series of elegiac landscapes, for which the source material is layered: photographs taken during that journey function as aides-mémoires superimposed on the altered post-war landscape, itself laid over the landscape of memory. In other series the cross-hatched webs are all-over non-figurative compositions aligned with minimalist and other modernist traditions. The texture may evoke cloth or the uninterrupted night sky, or dissolve into pure abstraction.

Since 2017 Barznge has been occupied with the study of the square, the central motif of traditional Islamic art, but also a touchstone of the twentieth-century avant-garde. These works on paper are simpler, airier and more transparent than the earlier, densely-worked panels, and are combined in wall-sized installations, once more evoking the memory-rich textile arts of quilting, weaving, embroidery. The critical undercurrent towards both religious tradition and Western cultural assumptions never becomes explicit. The call to abstraction persists, because it is a means of universalizing particular experience, providing an oblique approach to material that would otherwise be too painful or confrontational: irremediable loss, the guilt of the survival, and the duty to remember.

Heleen Schröder, July 2020