Of Distant Memories, Discovery and Displacement

Of Distant Memories, Discovery and Displacement


While Leila Kubba’s beloved Baghdad might have changed beyond recognition, the city remains very much alive in her art, as does the plight of others separated from their birthplace



Given personal circumstances and the current global refugee crisis, perhaps it’s not surprising that forced separation from a much-loved homeland is a recurring theme in the work of the Baghdad-born artist, Leila Kubba.



Based in Washington DC in 1991, at the time of the assault by US-led coalition forces on Iraq, Kubba explains that suddenly, her birthplace was in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. “Everyone around me viewed Iraq as a threat, which was a shock, as my memories of the country I grew up in were of the most beautiful place,” she says. “I also realised that I was unable to return there.”


Looking to accommodate these sentiments in her work, Kubba, who was born to a Swiss-American mother and an Iraqi father, embarked on a long and varied artistic journey that included drawing on historical themes, including ancient regional dynasties, and mythology.



Kubba believes that looking back has helped her to re-establish her roots and, also, try to make sense of the “chaotic present” in her work. “For example, when painting a complete series inspired by Michelangelo’s Pieta, I likened it to the unnatural present plight of mothers during the wars that receive their dead sons in their laps,” she explains.


Travelling extensively, she also took inspiration from the rich cultures and colours of her surroundings, which ranged from the UK, Greece and the US, to the UAE and, most recently, Lebanon. Sadness and loss, however, are ever present in her pieces, whether she’s painting memories of a city that no longer exists except in her mind, or reflecting on the plight of the refugees who, she acknowledges are much less fortunate than herself. “At first glance the scene looks beautiful, but there are references to a boat carrying immigrants, for example,” she explains. “It is not obvious…I like hidden aspects in a painting, with the viewer slowly discovering the symbols.”


Kubba brings the Baghdad she knew and loved back to life in her work by transporting the thoughts in her head into a visual that encompasses layers of harmonious colours, created using various techniques and textures. “It’s like an excavation process,” she explains. “I build up and then scratch into the surface to reveal hidden images. They may have become completely submerged, but the memory of them remains.”


She recalls how, as a young girl in Baghdad, she sometimes accompanied her father to a building site outside of the city near Babel, where they would find shards of ancient urns in the soil. “In a way, this is what I try to achieve in my work, this sense of discovery,” she notes. “That’s why I build up the canvas and create a ‘history’ for it, by adding textures, using different types of collaged pieces, then paint the final layer, so there is a richness to the surface.”


Her work featured in Artscoops’ upcoming Middle East Modern and Contemporary auction is aptly titled ‘Distant City’. Kubba explains that the piece is characterised by energetic, bold strokes, relaying the message that the city is far away, but very much alive. “It is almost an abstraction of the houses and their reflections, the calligraphic symbols and the reference to birds flying, symbolising immigration,” she says.



Aside from providing the inspiration for so much of Kubba’s work, Baghdad was also the city in which she saw her first art exhibition, aged eight. “It was held in a house as there were no galleries yet at that time,” she explains. “I was very impressed with the work and knew then that I wanted to be an artist.”


Kubba studied at the Manchester School of Art and Architecture in the UK, graduating with a National Diploma in Art and Design and then taking several further courses to hone her talent. She cites her first exhibition, which took place in 1978 in Abu Dhabi, as a landmark in her career. “I was encouraged and sponsored by the cultural attaché for the American Embassy at that time, George Naifeh,” she says. “It gave me the courage to show my paintings and get started professionally as an artist.”



Since then, she has participated in a long list of international shows and held 27 solo exhibitions. Today, Kubba’s work can be found in private and public collections across the globe, including the British Museum, the International Monetary Fund, Jordan’s National Gallery, the Abu Dhabi Cultural Center and Audi Bank, Beirut.


Just over 10 years ago, Kubba moved to Lebanon, where she embarked on a new phase in her career by converting part of her studio in Bir Hassan into an art gallery, called Orjowan. More recently, she opened Artspace Hamra with her daughter, Ameera. Since its launch, the gallery has helped to raise the profile of several young talents, including Hassan al Samad, Fatat Bahmad, Ghada Zoughbi and Anas Braehi.


When it comes to personal projects, Kubba explains that she has been working recently on mosaics using everyday objects, such as, mirrors, shards of pottery, watches, locks and pencils. “I hope to continue with that as well as my painting and see where it takes me in my quest to discover more,” she says.

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