DENVER — Flown in from Dubai, an enormous collodion camera dominates a corner of Denver’s Robischon Gallery. The apparatus belongs to artist Halim Al Karim, whose show of ghostly portrait photographs is an unlikely meeting of 19th-century photo processing techniques and a personal reflection on his artistic exile from Iraq.
At the 2011 Venice Biennale, the first ever Iraq Pavilion included Al Karim and five other artists who had left their country by the start of the 2003 Iraq War. Al Karim’s journey is nothing short of astounding. As the first Gulf War erupted in the late 1980’s, he avoided mandatory military service under Saddam Hussein by taking refuge in an underground desert hideout. Remaining there alone for three years and surviving only through the aid of a Bedouin woman nearby, he eventually re-emerged — fleeing to Jordan and then to Amsterdam before immigrating to the United States, eventually settling in Denver.
Al Karim’s work intensifies oppositions: presence with absence and freedom with containment. These contrasts enliven the political current that runs through the images, which include female sitters from Iraq whose identity is obscured by a thick haze. In The Witness Archive, Al Karim’s 2009 exhibition in the same space, the artist drew attention to the abuse and oppression of women he recalled from his years in the Middle East. The new work again uses female subjects but presents something more ethereal. The foreboding blur around the women alludes to no specific time and few iconographic elements are present to inform a historical or narrative entry point.
Al Karim has also incorporated a more adventurous technical process with his enormous custom-built camera. The device captured “Eternal Love 16” and “Eternal Love 17,” two of the wet-plate collodion portraits in the exhibit. Unlike editions printed from negatives, the collodion images were exposed directly onto large sheets of Dibond aluminum which are exhibited as one-of-a-kind impressions. Though Al Karim isn’t the only artist that is reviving early photographic techniques (Sally Mann has used glass rather than aluminum in her own collodion process), the sheer scale of his impressions is unheard of.
To create the works, the artist applied latex paint directly onto his sitter’s body before they were photographed. His camera was then draped with a silk scrim that helped create his trademark blur. Like the use of his slow and painstaking developing process, the scrim is another way Al Karim places distance between viewer and subject — further illustrating a lingering and shifting response to memory. In one of his new pieces, “Eternal Love 7,” a woman’s body is held within a diffuse sheath of red, her arms folded to her chest. With the scrim acting as a veil, the intense colors read as energy fields or esoteric auras that bespeak the subject’s emotional state.
It seems political, in a sense, for any Iraqi-American artist to create work reflecting on their experience of exile, and Al Karim’s work possesses an activist component in this regard. Yet the universal titles and sense of visual poetics linger as the most salient features of the work. As for the enormous new camera — Al Karim and his adventures in collodion seem only the outset of new explorations.
Halim Al Karim’s photography is on view at Robischon Gallery (1740 Wazee Street, Denver) through November 2.
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