In the contemporary art world, filled with faux sentiments, faux politics, faux creativity, even faux art practices considering “artists” in the upper echelon don’t even produce their own works by hand anymore. There are grand exceptions to this, and to find one is truly like peering into a long dark cavern, and seeing a gem being lit up by its own bio-luminescence. Maggi Hambling is one such artist, a mainstream visionary, who’s work does not fit into the pretty picture “Instagram ready” artwork that appeals to most normies. In fact quite a bit of contemporary art fits this, but with her work, there is still meaning, representation, and above all artistic craft and skill. She even admits that its quite “out of fashion” now-a-days (note: a good mini doc on her work can be found here).
Today on the 4th day of Modern art Madness Week, I wish to profile one of her more political, or should we say “geopolitical-aesthetic”works that immediately caught my eye upon first gaze. Hambling has always been provocative in her paintings, sculptures and sketches, a prolific working artist, she has always managed to maintain an integrity in her work (in so many words, she has keep on the straight and narrow in terms of artistic authenticity, unlike so many other hyper-political, faddish hacks in the Anglo-American art scenes). “Gulf Women Prepare for War” (1986-87) Is an exceptional work of contemporary realism, with a fair of Hambling’s own unique style.
A persistent theme in Hambling’s work has always been a fascination with war and death, and the various artistic motifs produced by them. In her infamous exhibit “War Requiem“, this piece and others are displayed, mostly in her unique style of abstraction that mixes greyed down tones with passages of vibrant red, blue or gold, a modern British style of abstract that makes one think of other contemporaries like john virtue (perhaps England being always cold, rainy and dingy might have an effect on the color palette, like the British water-colorists). One piece entitled “war victim” is a very abstract portrait of a person with their head exploded, it is not as graphic as a war photo in Time magazine, but its mounds of thick paint in fleshy greys implies the caving in of the face, a victim of war, a wig forever split.
What is so haunting about this work is that it was done at the most exiting of time for he 80s and 90s anti-globalization movement, and almost predicts the first and second gulf wars. Maggi stumbled upon a photo of a Hijab-clad middle eastern woman carrying munitions, and felt that significant things were bound to happen in the gulf. She states that:
“It was painted in 1986, inspired by a black-and-white image in a newspaper, four years before the first Gulf war started. I was so shocked, because one wasn’t used to seeing people dressed like that then: these women in what seemed to me to be biblical costume, rehearsing with these enormous heavy rocket-launchers. It was a very shocking image”
Once again, the psychic impulse of the artist struggles to ground itself in the present, whilst grasping hazy images from the future, while science and philosophy struggles to even keep up with the present.
Not to say that there are artists who condone global jihad, but I remember this time in the early 2000s when the anti-war movement and the anti-globalization movement were still going strong (before woke capital and neoliberalism took the radicalism the left had and reterritorialized it into mainstream banality). There were artists using the images we would see on a daily basis, of the war, of Gitmo and abu-ghraib prisoners in blindfolds and orange jumpsuits in stress positions, etc. all of these motifs now long forgotten in the Anglo-American collective psyche after the great Obamafication of recent geopolitical history. Now those people in the middle east in funny costumes can rot, we have other, more “woke” domestic issues to clutch pearls and lattes over.
What we see is a group of Burka women in the background, possibly running firing drills or target exercises in the blazing desert sand, on a short hill with hearty desert shrubs. In the foreground is a stern-faced militant woman jihadi carrying an RPG, and here we can see that signature sketch-like/visible stroke style of Hambling, similar to her earlier portraits that verged in between realism and abstraction ,where the subject would be consumed by colorful debris, or would be painted in such a way as to disintegrate, pieces ripping off of them into pools of galaxy-like dips and drabs of strokes. Here the abstract bits are almost mimicking the way a figure looks caught up in the desert winds of sand, fading in and out of view; There is something uniquely powerful to this image, in both, what some critics have claimed, is a feminist representation of the oriental woman. Of course this is not some image of orientalist flattery or fetishism, this shows the reality of what a lot of women live through in the middle east, fighting and dying. albeit some would claim this is an overtly romanticized image of the middle eastern female soldier.
As Benjamin Barber states in his seminal book “Jihad Vs. Mcworld”:
“Hollywood is McWorld’s storyteller, and it inculcates secularism, passivity, consumerism, vicariousness, impulse buying, and an accelerated pace of life, not as a result of its overt themes and explicit story lines but by virtue of what Hollywood is and how its products are consumed.”
What is unique about this type of art, especially during this time (for it seems to have evaporated into the politics of identity, and nothing else) is that it gave a window into the forces opposing modern liberalism and western rule in general, not just an atomized picture of “my struggle” against such and such intersecting societal forces, but the culmination of whole movements that have a religious devotion to violently peeling back western late capitalist decadence and profaneness. There is the “popular” “art” (or rather, mechanically produced anti-art) of the culture industry, and then there is art that is just outside the grasp of most “normies”. It is quite a display of how rapidly mainstream culture can shift under the feat of artists like the muddy earth in a landslide. If Hambling had painted this during the early 2000s instead of the late 80s, I can only imagine the outcry and accusations of sympathy with global jihad.
In some ways, this is an oriental painting that is anti-Orientalism of the 19th century. This is “reactionary” in the sense that it is not giving you a luxurious and romantic view of MENA women, seductively looking upon you, an inviting gaze peering from some harem in Marrakesh or Timbuktu. It subverts many of the degenerated tropes of the decadent periods of the 19th century. Instead of the women being painted in flesh tones, staring at you in a seductive gaze, the women peer off into the vast desert that is itself painted in flesh, while the women are covered in traditional Wahhabi Islamic garb. As Hambling notes in an interview her preference for Constable over Turner, despite her work resembling the abstracted style of Turner, especially her sea painting collections. The reason being is that with Turner, his art is more about him and his feelings, whereas with Constable “it really is painted from the Suffolk mud, you can smell the air, its a more honest representation of things”. To apply this ethos to her piece, “Gulf women” is a more accurate and representative of things on the ground in the middle east then any CFR propaganda piece planted in the media at the time.