On Ali Yass’s Die Flut (The Flood)

15 September, 2022
Open­ing of Ali Yass’ KHE Res­i­dence exhi­bi­tion, Kun­sthaus Essen, Essen, Ger­many (pho­to cour­tesy Stephan von Knobloch).


Ala Younis


The smoke of war is blue
White are the bones of people”
–Du Fu

Sar­gon Boulous once said,
These two lines are orig­i­nal­ly in Chi­nese, made of six char­ac­ters. Du Fu want­ed to put the whole his­to­ry of humankind in them.[1]

“The song of the rain 
Rip­pled the silence of birds in the trees … 
Drop, drop,
the rain Drip 
Drop the rain”[2]


Dur­ing the ear­ly lat­ter half of 2021, Berlin-based artist Ali Yass spent a few weeks in a res­i­den­cy in Kun­sthaus Essen, Ger­many.[3] There he worked on a series of paint­ings on can­vas, many of which were inspired by the land­scape that sur­round­ed him in the Ruhr area. Through­out his res­i­den­cy, Ali jogged dai­ly on cer­tain routes until one day, peo­ple obstruct­ed his way, telling him that the water had risen to the knees in the direc­tion he was head­ed. On July 14 and 15, 2021, it rained so much that the Rhein­land-Pfalz and Nor­drhein-West­falen were flood­ed, and soon severe­ly damaged.

Upon hear­ing the expres­sion of water ris­ing to the knees, Ali remem­bered a war sto­ry from the Cru­sades: upon hear­ing that blood­shed had reached the knees, and in an attempt to gauge the grue­some­ness of the blood­shed, ques­tions were asked whether blood rose to the knights’ or their hors­es’ knees, as the lat­ter would have been high­er. This ques­tion of esti­ma­tion and cal­cu­la­tion, of prob­ing mem­o­ries of war upon think­ing of (nature or any) vio­lence, and of a human body and how it finds its resem­blance in far more com­pli­cat­ed setups and rep­re­sen­ta­tions are the foun­da­tions of Ali Yass work. Trig­gered by these lines, Ali could see the floods through the eyes of his per­son­al expe­ri­ence of displacement.

Ali trains his body to run, and thinks of the mus­cles that build up in this process. The thigh mus­cle is the largest in the human body, and its size and its build up through its func­tion inter­est Ali and inspire his work. There is often a leg extend­ed on its own, on the ground, in Ali’s works, to ref­er­ence fatigue. 

For his work “Die Flut” (The Flood), Ali chose a Japan­ese Washi paper that allows only what he calls a one-way tick­et. A paper that allows a paint­ing time that is short, swift, and pos­si­bly cau­tious, counter to the time allowed by paint­ing on can­vas, which can be long, change­able and mul­ti-lay­ered. In “Die Flut,” Ali applies a black stroke on the Japan­ese Mis­u­mi Kozo paper, using a big Japan­ese brush dipped in Chi­nese ink.

Ali says that he is not an abstract painter, and so a stroke on a piece of paper calls upon him to engage it with more think­ing on the pos­si­bil­i­ties of draw­ing. Anoth­er stroke or oth­er shapes start to crawl into the space of the paint­ing based on what impres­sions the stroke made, not on its own, but also in rela­tion to the intend­ed series. Nei­ther a stroke of black ink nor a devel­op­ing paint­ing on such paper can be altered or maneu­vered, it has to be accept­ed, dealt with and built upon.

Some works take twelve sec­onds, oth­ers take many days.

In this series, Ali decides to leave one sin­gle work at the ini­tial state of the stroke and per­haps an accom­pa­ny­ing shape or two. He wants to leave it there, even in the sta­tus of an unfin­ished ele­ment — it is inten­tion­al­ly left there, to probe, acti­vate, engage, con­tra­dict, evoke and con­verse with oth­er lines and col­or­ful shapes that will appear in the oth­er pieces in this series. This seem­ing­ly unfin­ished abstract work can come to a com­ple­tion later.

Ali was trained as a painter at the Fac­ul­ty of Art and Design at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Jor­dan, where he was also a run­ner on the uni­ver­si­ty team. Through­out his stud­ies, he was taught to appre­ci­ate mul­ti­ple steps of paint­ing as they were prac­ticed and evi­dent in works by Iraqi mas­ters such as Faeq Has­san (1914–1992), or the Uni­ver­si­ty of Jordan’s teach­ers who were trained under him, such the Pales­tin­ian Jor­dan­ian Aziz Amoura (1944–2018), who also taught on Faeq’s mas­ter­dom. Ali fol­lowed some of the steps until he met dur­ing his three and a half years of work at Dar al Anda Gallery, in Amman, the Japan­ese artist Norio Takaoka.

The flood­ed Ruhr riv­er, Essen 2021 (pho­to cour­tesy Ali Yass).

Ali is a per­son from Asia, but West Asia, from the Mus­lim world; he is from a place between two places, two times, two exis­tences, at least. In Norio’s work and cul­ture, Ali saw a sim­pler way to approach sculp­ture mak­ing, one that is based on mean­ing­ful rep­e­ti­tions and mean­ings of ges­tures, and that has roots in his mem­o­ries from the old build­ings and hand­crafts in his Bagh­dad neigh­bor­hoods. Ali says, in Ara­bic or Japan­ese, he can say rose rose rose for a per­son to imag­ine one rose fol­low­ing anoth­er, yet it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine it this way if said in Ger­man. Ali stud­ied Ger­man in Amman to speak it in Berlin, where he’s been based since 2017. Ali is now learn­ing Japanese.

His paint­ing prac­tice acti­vates Asian inks and brush­es, in the mode of the Zen mind or brush, the art of black and white, of art made only with one brush, and art that is engulfed by a flow of forms, all bustling or danc­ing or fight­ing around one black stroke. His knowl­edge, world, and deci­sions trav­el with the speed of a thought, from the far east to where he is and was, until these forms start to speak. In the process of draw­ing, he iden­ti­fies some shapes that could look like eyes, works them out until just before they become a paint­ed eye, then he remem­bers the sim­plic­i­ty he learnt from the east, and paus­es, “what do I want from the eye, what is the most essen­tial in the paint­ing of an eye? The glare! I worked on the glare detail in this eye. In Die Flut, I focused on move­ment of water, and in some works mud popped up. Besides black, blue was a main fea­ture in many of the pieces, but each piece had its own log­ic and impres­sions on me.”[4] Just like Du Fu’s poem, char­ac­ters or ele­ments of sto­ry­telling here are brief but poignant; blue indi­cates a war but does not illus­trate it, and body is the same wher­ev­er it is placed.

In Berlin, Ali works in ses­sions but has nev­er moved his brush­es between his stu­dio and home. He starts by map­ping the flow in the works using Chi­nese ink, stud­ies their look, starts with the sim­plest and leaves the com­plex to lat­er. It is like a casu­al Sun­day run, he says, one starts with warm­ing up, then jog­ging, then run­ning in place. The art­works con­verse through­out the process, and crea­tures (human, ani­mal, or oth­er) start to appear in them. He does not work from sketch­es or pre­pared draw­ings and so the crea­tures pop up unex­pect­ed­ly from impres­sions in forms he had just worked on. Ali uses the space of these paint­ings to reflect with him­self on him­self, the child­hood he had in Bagh­dad, its fall and loot­ing that he saw live dur­ing the US-led inva­sion and occu­pa­tion of the city in 2003, and the jour­neys he had to take into the exile from 2008 onwards, start­ing at the age of 15 years old, and end­ing in Berlin.

These char­ac­ters, or motifs, ref­er­ence, respond and repeat around these trau­mas, desires, thoughts, and/or emo­tions in Ali’s life. The motifs have a sta­tus, not a life, because they are from the mind of the same per­son. Togeth­er they make sense, they ref­er­ence a sta­tus or sit­u­a­tion; a sit­ting or extend­ed leg is a tired one, a run­ning impres­sion sig­nals hard work­ing, some blacks are eyes, oth­ers are beards or mous­tach­es, and so on. In live draw­ing ses­sions at Uni­ver­si­ty of Jor­dan, Ali paint­ed mod­els from their knees down­wards. The thigh appears as an obses­sion in his work, birds also appear, and some beasts, peo­ple with mous­tach­es, his friends, includ­ing the Paris-based Iraqi artist Himat. These char­ac­ters age, some­times they retire, or leave the works and new char­ac­ters come in their place. The char­ac­ters are not fixed, they appear to tell a sto­ry, often stuck with­in the realm of the can­vas, and they trav­el with Ali, to wher­ev­er he takes the can­vas, home, uni­ver­si­ty, metro.

Ali run­ning a half marathon (pho­to cour­tesy Joud Al-Tamimi).

“I feel I am stuck but not real­ly, in cer­tain phas­es, with these char­ac­ters,” he says. “Also, that’s why I expand­ed my exper­i­ments to film, because they would allow a sphere for my draw­ings. I also see my per­son­al resem­blance, whether in the appear­ance of the legs or mous­tache, or the kid that sticks his tongue out to the world. In fact, stick­ing the tongue out is some­thing I car­ried with me from my child­hood in Bagh­dad, and that’s what I teach first to the chil­dren that don’t speak yet.”

In Bagh­dad, Ali Yass drove with his father to see how muse­ums were being loot­ed, by the occu­pa­tion or con­trac­tors, or where not pro­tect­ed or let open, fol­low­ing the fall of the regime in 2003. 

“I feel I am stuck at that moment that led to 2003, the war moment. Sim­i­lar to a flood, peo­ple do not have time to res­cue stuff and car­ry it out­side of their flood­ing homes. When the war hap­pened, I was 11 years old, near­ly a teenag­er but also still a child. Every­thing I paint is linked to this moment that I feel I am loop­ing with,” Ali says. “If I had not lived this moment, my work and my under­stand­ing of life and things would have been dif­fer­ent. That momen­tum was my under­stand­ing of time and its pace, it was a pure momen­tum of anar­chy or pow­er vacuum.”

To fur­ther explain about the forms that we see in his works, Ali para­phras­es his pro­fes­sor at Berlin Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts (UdK), philoso­pher Alexan­der Gar­cía Düttmann: “These crea­tures are post-dis­as­ter beings, or per­haps they are crea­tures that are about to encounter a dis­as­ter. They seem friend­ly or fun­ny. I am not inter­est­ed in retelling a moment but in under­stand­ing it and recon­struct­ing it in rela­tion to my cur­rent moment and what images and feel­ings I can recall from that moment. The occu­pa­tion of Bagh­dad, I was not reborn on that day, but it is the year zero for me.”

These works are dif­fer­ent from the series that was shown in 2019 at MoMA’s PS1 show, The­ater of Oper­a­tions: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011. “Those were the begin­ning of the project, I redrew the works that I made when I was a child, so these works were repli­cas,” explains Ali, who could not attend the show nor his objec­tion pre­sen­ta­tion at the clos­ing event. These repli­cas were hurt in the show when the muse­um refused to address the par­tic­i­pants’ expressed con­cerns over hav­ing a head of the muse­um board with a back­ground of earn­ing from mer­ce­nary work in Iraq post 2003. For Ali’s voice to rise, he had to pro­duce repli­cas of the repli­cas, turn­ing them into orig­i­nals. His forms had gone through fun times; remem­ber, he expe­ri­enced the war as a kid not an adult.

His work, as well as Berlin, con­sti­tute a place he now knows how to iden­ti­fy and how to come back to or enter; how to meet his char­ac­ters. Com­bin­ing a vital pres­ence and activism in the city, by engag­ing in demon­stra­tions, find­ing jobs and also study­ing at Berlin Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts (UdK) for a Diplo­ma, he has cre­at­ed the dynamism or the chan­nels for the char­ac­ters to come, and “so I am famil­iar with them, I know them. In MoMA, I had seen these char­ac­ters only for the first time in con­text, but these are now more known to me, I know which meet­ing place I can see them in.”

In 2019, Kay­fa ta (Maha Maamoun and Ala You­nis) com­mis­sioned Ali Yass to pro­duce two series, The Rainy Days and The Cloudy Days, for two shows on pub­lish­ing orga­nized at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi and at the MMAG Foun­da­tion in Amman. The accom­pa­ny­ing text read,

“Six bil­lion leaflets were dropped in West­ern Europe and 40 mil­lion leaflets dropped by the Unit­ed States Army Air Forces over Japan in 1945 dur­ing World War II. One bil­lion were used dur­ing the Kore­an War while 31 mil­lion have been used in the war against Iraq.”

“Dur­ing the first days of the Amer­i­can inva­sion of Iraq in 2003, there was a huge sand­storm going on for days, which stopped the occu­pa­tion army from mov­ing towards Bagh­dad. As a kid, I was hop­ing for the rain to clear the air from dust but at the same time I was hap­py that the army could see noth­ing in such weath­er. Lat­er, it rained; it rained so many leaflets.”[5]

Ali still remem­bers not only the huge sand­storm that delayed the advance­ment of the US troops, but also how he hoped for rain­fall to clear the dust from the air, only to see it rain­ing so many leaflets. He calls his project The Rainy Days, inspired by a poem by Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926–1964), who in the 1960s “shapeshift­ed” clas­si­cal poet­ry struc­tures and rev­o­lu­tion­ized the poet­ic and polit­i­cal writ­ing of the time. But also, because, water fea­tures in this work when speak­ing about rain.

Ali’s brush­es, Kun­sthaus Essen 2021 (pho­to cour­tesy Ali Yass).

But the type of paper used in The Rainy Days series is dif­fer­ent, it tol­er­ates the mul­ti-step elab­o­rate paint­ing process­es in which Ali was trained. In this type of paint­ing, Ali can delete parts of the work through lay­er­ing, but this is much lim­it­ed in the works he pro­duced for Die Flut, which will pre­miere in the Sin­ga­pore Bien­nale in Octo­ber 2022.[6] In paint­ing, he can go and come back, maneu­ver, but in the Die Flut series, it is only one act. That’s why, today, despite being paint­ed in Berlin, this work relates to the moment of his child­hood per­haps, where the first mem­o­ries leave a clear and guid­ing mark on Ali and his under­stand­ing of life. In this series, this is Ali’s first time to work exten­sive­ly on the same con­cept through both paint­ing and drawings.

Ali does not refer to inte­gra­tion in Berlin but to mak­ing a choice of how to speak, which is a priv­i­leged posi­tion most of the time, upon under­stand­ing a con­text, its lan­guage and accents. He always asks on who has the right to the space, and reflects the body of a for­eign­er or an immi­grant who has seen vio­lence prac­ticed by the land­scape on his body; too cold, or too hot, too dark to accom­mo­date, too white to tol­er­ate, etc. He sees all of these aspects in his attempt, not to adapt to the place, and not to take it for grant­ed. There is a pos­si­ble space in between, there is the moment of col­li­sion that pro­duces the ener­gy of a place that can nev­er be ren­dered in one light. At least it will always need two lights to paint a place.

In his class col­lec­tive stu­dio at UdK Berlin, with Hito Stey­erl, Ali count­ed 33 brush­es, sev­en of them Japan­ese, includ­ing the biggest brush, while some are Chi­nese, as is the ink.

Ali had not paint­ed a palm tree since he left from Iraq. Only trees that he encoun­ters in his present (Ger­man) space appear. What he is sure of, is that his col­or palette has changed from the almost mono­chrome he paint­ed before com­ing to Berlin. “The col­ors here came out clear­er and more vibrant. Rid­ing on a bus in Jor­dan allowed me to see an open hori­zon as if I were float­ing. In Berlin, I only see trees very close to the win­dows of the train I take to my place. Dur­ing my first months of arriv­ing in Berlin, I always won­dered why art stu­dents in Ger­many paint­ed like Ger­hard Richter, until I noticed frag­ments of his tex­tures start­ed to appear in my work! You will always be in the state of a mov­ing object, like trains, you will always see blurred scenes. From Amman, many peo­ple (and crea­tures) sur­face in my cur­rent work, but not the place which I can­not repro­duce but in what is avail­able for me to shoot or cap­ture. In film or mov­ing images, I am always call­ing the cur­rent space to speak about that oth­er place. I could talk about that moment of resis­tance in Bagh­dad, but I had to pro­duce in a metro in Berlin. I have to find a way to change it to describe a place that I am not in any­more but have a sto­ry to ref­er­ence. Some­times, it can be an advan­tage to not have access to a par­tic­u­lar place, so you have to reform and readapt your point of view towards the sto­ry, and try to make new asso­ci­a­tions accord­ing to your cur­rent pos­si­bil­i­ties. This will cre­ate a new momen­tum which bridg­ing these two places, and con­nect these times together.”

The rain song tick­led the silence of the spar­rows on trees
The evening yawned and the clouds were still
Pour­ing their heavy tears
As if a child, before sleep­ing, was rav­ing about his mother
A year ago, he woke up and did not find her
And when he kept ask­ing about her
He was told
After tomor­row she will be back
She must come back
Yet his com­pan­ions whis­per that she is there[7]

In this arti­cle, I includ­ed two dif­fer­ent trans­la­tions of the same vers­es from a famous poem by Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab, pub­lished in 1962 under the title Rain Song. Being an out­stand­ing and mature exam­ple of free verse style which Al-Sayyab and his peers exper­i­ment­ed with from the mid 20th cen­tu­ry in Bagh­dad. For this and also for its incor­po­ra­tion of myths, the poem was taught across dif­fer­ent Ara­bic cur­ric­u­la for the past four decades. There is a dif­fer­ence between the two trans­la­tions’ inter­pre­ta­tion of the rep­e­ti­tion of the word rain and its rep­e­ti­tion across the poem, Rain Rain Rain, gives a feel­ing of a sur­round­ing envi­ron­ment where many expe­ri­ence the pour­ing rain, while Drop Drop Drip is a par­tic­u­lar sound or image as if observed by one per­son. This com­bi­na­tion of two posi­tions, besides the exam­ple of rose rose rose giv­en by Ali, can illus­trate to us the way how a choice of paper, lines, crea­tures, or songs on rain can also be as auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal as attempt­ing to make these choic­es in Berlin, where he is now prepar­ing for his first marathon there. 



[1] From a record­ing by Iraqi poet Sar­goun Boulous (1944–2007) intro­duc­ing then recit­ing his poem, Du Fu in Exile. Accessed on 6 Sep­tem­ber 2022  at https://youtu.be/V7UGRPH06EM
[2] Trans­la­tion of Rain Song, poem by Iraqi poet Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab, trans­lat­ed from Ara­bic by Lena Jayyusi and Christo­pher Mid­dle­ton. Accessed on 8 Sep­tem­ber 2022 at https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/rain-song‑7/
[3] DAS KHE RESIDENCE-PROGRAMM 2021, Kun­sthaus Essen, an inter­view with the artist dur­ing the res­i­den­cy is pub­lished at this link https://youtu.be/pFwcikJDCUA
[4] Inter­view with Ali Yass on 28 August 2022.
[5] Ali Yass, The Rainy Days”, How to maneu­ver: Shapeshift­ing texts and oth­er pub­lish­ing tac­tics, eds. Maha Maamoun and Ala You­nis, pub­lished by Kay­fa ta and Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi / Beirut, 2020, 235.
[6] Co-curat­ed by Ala You­nis, Bin­na Choi, June Yap and Nida Ghouse.
[7] THE RAIN SONG by Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab trans­lat­ed from Ara­bic by Khaloud Al-Mut­tal­i­bi. Pub­lished in Knot Mag­a­zine in Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab, FALL ISSUE: 2012. Accessed on 8 Sep­tem­ber 2022 at this link: https://middleeasternliteraturejournal.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/the-rain-song-by-badr-shakir-al-sayyab-translated-from-arabic-by-khaloud-al-muttalib/


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