Flight from Light – on Araakaa’s art
On a Friday evening, at the ‘Blinkers Off’ exhibition at the Avahteri Gallery, I was observing a drawing, one of the larger portraits of two figures. There is an unrealised, unfinished quality in these pieces. And this one, like the rest, seems to have been wrenched from a nightmare and hastily put on paper.
And a young woman came up to me and said: "Don't you think it's beautiful?"
It certainly didn't align with my sense of beauty. Yes, I replied. That this question could be asked of Araakaa's works felt a little absurd. Perhaps someone might find them beautiful, I don't know, but it seemed tangential to the whole project, which pieces together a year in an artist's life. An artist whose works feel like fresh psychic wounds transcribed in ink and charcoal on paper and canvas.
I thought of a photo exhibition held at Iskandhar School during Maumoon's reign. It was my first experience of its kind, and as I went through the exhibits – black and white photographs of children, island life, sailboats – I was underwhelmed. I didn't see the point. I asked my dad why it was all in black and white. He said it was a style of photography. Then I said, "So, all you need is a black and white camera." My dad said, "Not just anybody with a camera can do this."
If Araakaa's pieces feel like studies that a fine arts graduate can replicate, it's because they are. But that's missing the point, too. The feverish squiggles, the bony figures, the jarring, angular lines of long skeletal hands, these are all hallmarks of his style. His subjects’ faces, frequently contorted, forever alien, seem especially apt at a time when Professor Ugail's facial recognition technology (which, remember, the good professor has shared with the police) reduces an aspect of our physical identity to dots on a grid.
At a Q&A by the artist, Araakaa revealed that he was inspired by revolutionary art, particularly the Soviet kind, and street artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey. His early (public) works, which rose to prominence during the #mvcoup era, were politically conscious, often depicting and decrying police brutality.
“That’s all behind me,” he said. “Now, it’s about me trying to journey inward. These pieces are like six years’ worth of thoughts and feelings that I’ve channelled between December ‘17 and October ‘18. I was drawing fast – as soon as I finished one, I threw it aside and began work on the next.”
In that period, he produced more than 500 works of which 44 are displayed at the gallery.
His work deserves attention because through its prism we see unsettling aspects of ourselves and our relationships with others. It alludes to the disconnect and violence that can exist between the most intimate of connections, between family and with oneself. These soul-blighting landscapes have been trodden, to be sure, and sometimes by much younger local artists, but there is an intensity, an immediacy to Araakaa’s best work that calls for deeper consideration. There is a clear rift between them and those mobile-friendly posts of today’s talented illustrators, whose work is largely polished and pointed.
Araakaa’s pieces are as evocative as those of Moosa Mamduh, who I feel is a kindred spirit, despite articulating himself very differently. And because of their violence and mode of expression, these works don’t (and, arguably, can’t) aspire to beauty. The lingering effect of contact with Araakaa’s art is one of profound unease. It makes me wonder where his work can find a home, whether it could ever take centre stage in a place where people gather (I spoke to a buyer – she wanted one for her bedroom). And it is his indifference to these questions that endears him because that’s a sign of an artist whose sole care is about expressing himself.