In the eyes of a seven-year-old, her grandfather’s house in Alexandria is a treasure chest. A wondrous space full of exciting details unfolding into endless possibilities that caress a child’s imagination: a green marble table becomes a car, ideal for playing a mechanic and lying underneath the table, repairing the vehicle and gently touching the bottom side of the cold heavy green marble slab; a tiny corner between an armchair and chiffon curtains, perfect for hide-and-seek. The most important, however, in these scenes, is a loving grandfather, who braids the young girl’s hair, buys her Haribo cherry gummies splitting each cherry in half and teaches her to count to ten in ten different languages, entertaining her in a manner strictly reserved for grandparents: ever-so-generous, kind and wholeheartedly allowing. The year the seven-year-old girl spent in Alexandria, inextricably bound up with these memories, marks a starting point for the story of Aidha Badr’s, a Brooklyn-born and Cyprus-based visual artist, whose work explores memories, daydreaming and the intricacies of female desire.
Alexandria does not only contain significance for Badr’s personal narrative, but also for her professional one. It was in the ancient city of Alexander the Great, known for nurturing a number of significant modernists including Mahmoud Saïd (1897-1964), the Wanly brothers, Seif (1906-1979) and Adham (1908-1959) and Hussein Bicar (1913-2002), that Badr, at a mere seven years of age, realised that she, too, wanted to become an artist. Her desire for artistic appreciation was so strong that the young artist-to-be showed her mother’s hyperrealistic drawings to her classmates as her own. After Alexandria, Badr’s family relocated to Kuwait, where she engaged in artistic endeavours of her own and remained determined about her aspirations. After high school, she enrolled at a BFA course in fine art specialising in painting, graduating in 2017. Currently, she is pursuing an MFA in Cyprus at Girne American University.
Badr follows the same ritual before she gets to work: playing Pitbull’s discography on shuffle, guided by her sentiments: ‘I start painting the entire canvas red with no preconceived idea of what will go on it.’ A process best described as intuitive and inward-looking yet fuelled by a sense of an uncertainty-cum-anxiety of what is to come translates into feminine figures that are not characterised by romantic sentimentality but guided by a narrative Badr creates as she paints. The history of Badr’s figurative works, which characterise her oeuvre, dates back to her discovery of self-portraiture. The self-portraits such as Self Portrait in Silk Shirt (2018), Self Portrait in Yellow (2018) and Seated Self Portrait (2018) mark the dawn of her career and the transition from an art student to an artist as Badr started to discover her imprint and way of thinking through self-portraiture at the end of her BFA degree. These honest and intimate self-portraits, where the artist is positioned comfortably in the middle of the composition, standing or sitting in a relaxed manner, holding clementines, a dear fruit from her childhood and the days spent with her grandfather, immortalise moments from a young woman’s life.
In the self-portraits, Badr is seemingly comfortable and does not mind the spectator’s gaze but strikes a confident pose despite depicting herself in a private setting, sitting on a couch in a place that could be her home, or doing things we tend to do behind closed doors, for instance wearing a LUSH peppermint face mask, blurring the lines between private and public and intimate and distant, thereby enshrining an ephemeral instant of her life and immortalising a glimpse of herself. Since 2018, Badr has been developing portraiture vis-à-vis the concept of memory, which she uses as a medium, drawing inspiration from hearsay, stories about herself as told by others, cross-referencing them with her own memories. The exercises in bringing together memory and portraiture crystallise in titles such as Her Cloth Was Cut From Heaven, She Wished To Be Me And I Wished To Be Her (2021) and Self Portrait With Doll: Her Cloth Was Cut From Heaven, She Wished To Be Me And I Wished To Be Her (2021), where Badr revisits meaningful memories from her time in Alexandria, gently suggesting that these recollections, which are essentially unobtainable from the present time, become objects of desire. Boldly questioning the reliability of her own memory as she comes to learn the details of her memories are not accurate, Badr invites us to consider the authenticity of our past recollections. Although the instants of the past are celebrated in her paintings, Badr’s work is not particularly nostalgic; there is no longing for the past as a whole. Instead, her paintings are odes to particular moments, which are rather to be thought of as a road to desire rather than a means to an end.
The notion of memories is well-documented in Badr’s portraits of women, too. These portraits do not represent just any women, but women who have impacted her life, for instance her friends, women who resemble her mother and women who possess characteristics such as nurturing, loving and caring–attributes that guide Badr’s understanding of womanhood. The women of Heaven Is A Feeling (2019), Eternity Is The Wait Between Breaths (2019) and Portrait Of A Woman: Waiting (2021) indeed epitomise Badr’s image of a woman: vulnerable yet strong, domestic yet free, nurturing yet sensual. Although Badr recognises the societal pressures that often drive women towards such qualities and the encompassing woman-as-a-caregiver configuration, her works are not to be read as a critique but a celebration of such characteristics and positions. Above all, Badr’s female characters have agency and they do not merely exist in order to fulfil their role but are protagonists in their own stories, existing independently despite the surrounding expectations in a space Badr calls ‘between heaven and earth’, an area not to be defined in a spiritual sense but rather by its absence of spatiality, a kind of non-space, where the red sun unifies the women’s experiences.
These characters stemming from Badr’s personal experiences and notions surrounding femininity and womanhood are unapologetic about their desires. They sit boldly in their portraits in a dreamy terrain fusing love and desire, resulting to an atmosphere that is accentuated by titles such as desire is tripled is love, and love tripled is madness (2021), when i desire you a part of me is gone (2021) and the hardest part about losing a love is watching the year repeat its days (2021). In her pursuit of exploring the intricacies of female desire, Badr joins the ranks of earlier generations of artists dealing with the very topic. The Lebanese Huguette Caland (1931-2019) and Palestinian Juliana Seraphim (1934-2005), for instance, examined female desire through the lenses of sexuality and lust. Whereas for Caland and Seraphim desire was inherently corporeal and politically motivated as it was so closely linked to liberation, for Badr it is more a question ofattachment and the myriad of possibilities projected into the space between the object of one’s desire and the needs and promises projected onto it. In this sense, Badr’s figures depict women as both the desired and the desiring. Driven by Anne Carson’s understanding of desire, seen as an entity that cannot exist without the lack of what we seek, the very presence of it in Badr’s paintings does not lead to anything. Desire, in this sense, is a promise that can never be ultimately fulfilled. There is no final destination but a constant search.
Intimately linked with the notion of desire are also Badr’s 2019 paintings of figures of women in Roommates In Heaven (2019), Draw Four (2019) and Laundry Day (2019), mostly lounging, doing ordinary chores such as waiting for laundry and playing the card game UNO. These paintings stem from Badr’s experiences after her grandfather’s passing, from a time when she thought that the only way to be reunited with him would be through purifying herself of all earthly things. In these serene depictions of Badr and her friends, the paintings’ protagonists are occupied with the mundane of everyday life, thereby creating a sharp contrast to the ceremonial affairs framing one’s passing. Despite the paintings’ personal background and significance, Badr manages to discuss the topic with universality that can escape her experiences with her grandfather’s passing. The resulting scenes are almost hopeful in their serenity. In this regard, and considering Carson’s aforementioned definition of desire and the centrality of the concept to Badr’s corpus, grief becomes the ultimate desire as reuniting with a loved one on the Earth will remain impossible forever.
Badr’s world is one of wonder and reflection. Driven by her need to make sense of the world around her, her work examines the fading of the personal and the public, creating a discursive space which articulates her generation’s freedom from the older ones. In a space where the artist’s gaze is inherently in-ward looking and the personal takes precedence over the political, Badr eloquently negotiates her position as an artist who addresses her inner world and beliefs. Badr’s paintings demonstrate how her pounderings, personal dreamscapes and ideals about women result in engaging narratives dealing with universally recognisable themes which offer viewers a space to reflect and relate. Badr’s timeless depictions of femininity and womanhood both decipher and construct a sensual, mysterious layer often synonymous with women without diminishing their agency. Redolent with beauty and independence while unmasking topics such as desire, childhood, memories and death, the artist’s emotive portraits are unapologetic odes to her highest values: love and beauty.
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