Young Masters

Syrian refugee’s art a highlight of MFA show of new art grads at UAMA

Lara Haddad came to the United States from Syria four years ago for a visit. Her plan was to go back, but she's never been able to return home.

Syria is engulfed in an "untamed and unwanted war," Haddad writes in an artist's statement at the MFA show, split between the University of Arizona Museum of Art and the Joseph Gross Gallery across the way. "After five years of intense conflict, the Syrian homeland that I knew and loved no longer exists."

The U.N. estimated that as of last summer some 250,000 people have been killed in the savage conflict; The New York Times reported that 200 people perished just last week. As many as 4 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees.

Graduating this month with her master's from the UA School of Art, Haddad has turned her anguish over these tragedies into wrenching art. She's made an installation of violent images that she's both created herself and appropriated from news media. Pictures of crumbling buildings, soldiers, victims of torture and of disappeared people fill her works. A pile of refugee belongings—blankets, identity documents and a slim paperback—is stacked on the floor. News photos of soldiers tearing through crushed cities are reprinted on blankets, the one thing, she writes, that nearly all refugees grab when they flee.

Haddad has also inserted herself into the horror.

In a series of painterly textured photos, colored moody black, gray and white and printed on aluminum, Haddad pictures herself in disturbing settings. Moving back and forth from victim to torturer, she's made images that recall notorious photos from various Middle Eastern conflagrations. Some use metaphor to suggest violence.

In "Execution," 2015, for example, Haddad substitutes a pineapple for the severed head that's become all too familiar when captives of war have been decapitated on camera. Haddad is in close-up, her face glaring and her hair severe. She raises her hand in a triumphant gesture, gripping the severed pineapple in her fist, holding its stalks as though they were a victim's hair.

In "Consent," she becomes the victim, her mouth covered with duct tape. Then in "Reenactment, Part 2," 2015, she reverts to tormenter, holding a whip in one hand.

"Reenactment, Part 1," 2015, alludes to one of the best-known photos from the war in Iraq, of a victim at Abu Ghraib whom U.S. military torturers had hooded and laced with electric wires. Like that victim, Haddad stands on a box, draped in cloth, her arms outstretched, but her cloth is a brilliant radiant white, not black, and her face is uncovered. The picture has the unexpected radiance of a holy card, and Haddad looks warily out at the camera, as if wondering if she can make a difference.

Haddad writes that she's trapped psychologically between her two countries, feeling that she's part of neither. Some of the photos record her own harrowing emotional journey as a refugee. "Toppled Memory," 2016, has a stack of document storage boxes violently falling over, mimicking the tumbling buildings in her repurposed news photos. The stool that held them has cracked. This "still life" conveys the disruption in the lives of refugees, who've lost not only their homes and livelihoods, but also their sense of who they are.

As she notes, "I am an outsider to my country, my new country—and even myself."

Haddad is one of eight young artists in this fine survey of contemporary art. The new grads are willing to try any and all media—along with Haddad's blanket "canvases," there's the neon in Katherine Killian's glowing wall sculptures and the "book" by Jiasi He that veers between video on the wall and pages loosely held in a binding. Carolina Maki Kitagawa, performs in a "museum" she built inside the real museum. Her next performance is at 4 p.m. on May 12.

Ryan Napier's large mixed-media paintings on canvas deploy VHS ribbons, paper collage and acrylics in shades of flesh and blood to represent the cells and tissue and organs deep within his own body. Andrew Shuta's wild sculpture installation over at Joseph Gross Gallery uses giant sheets of colored foil, real clothing, plastic toys and crayon-bright paints for his half-monstrous, half-comical sculpted humanoids.

Digital photographer Anthony L. Barron uses perhaps the most conventional medium. Even so, his digital images writ large on sheets of paper flutter in the breeze, and in his 38 pictures—cluttered computer desktop, toy alligator, children shot in multiple moving views—he's created a parallel world, a candy-colored version of life today.

Brian Ganter created a whole wallful of heat-sensitive metal plates that yield their ghostly photographic images only when they've been warmed up on a hot spot in the gallery. Like Haddad, Ganter turned to a human tragedy for his interactive thesis project, "kiss, stroke, grip," 2016.

You first get a hint of his subject when you see the names and ages of the dead he's memorialized in this work. Their data is printed on 106 metal plates placed neatly on shelves. The deceased died mostly in their 20s and 30s, mostly men, and they mostly died in the 1980s and 1990s. All the shelves and all the plates, row upon orderly on row, are reminiscent of the burials in military cemeteries: visual evidence of the massive loss of people dying too young.

An artist's statement reveals, not unexpectedly, that it was AIDS-related complications that killed them all. The surprise comes in learning that the portraits embedded invisibly in the plates all picture actors who worked in porn; Ganter gleaned their images from old movies. When you warm the plates on the hot spot provided, you find that the handsome young men who come into view are in the throes of sexual ecstasy—their mouths open, arms thrown back, eyelids half closed. Then you relive their deaths. When you put them the plates back on their shelves, the metal turns cold. The men disappear, dying once again.

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