Ali Eyal’s “In the Head’s Sunrise”

Dina Ramadan

January 20, 2023
Brief Histories, New York
December 8, 2022–January 28, 2023

“In the Head’s Sunrise”, a quiet yet compelling exhibition of Ali Eyal’s recent drawings and paintings, captures the intricacy and complexity of the young Iraqi artist’s practice; the emotional texture of the work, accomplished through rapid, forceful strokes, is immediately striking. Individually and collectively the works recreate moments from life in Eyal’s hometown—referred to only as small farm—where he came of age amidst the violent turmoil of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The titles of the pieces underscore Eyal’s propensity for narrative along with his acute awareness of its limitations; each enigmatic label ends with “and,” indicating its incompleteness, and suggesting that every encounter is a beginning, like tugging on a loose, seemingly extraneous thread that unexpectedly unravels the entire fabric.

Three heads walking between towns, and (2022) is the immediate focal point of the exhibition and reflects the mythological nature of Eyal’s work. The large canvas hangs like a banner, hands snatching at its sides, attempting to tear through the composition. Three women’s heads attached to makeshift bodies, an assemblage of ill-fitting and dislocated ligaments, dominate the canvas. They are reminiscent of the three fates, their thick black hair unfurling behind them like billows of smoke, each home to a nightscape filled with hidden scenes. Beams of light streaming from flashlights and headlights—which appear and reappear throughout the artist’s work—momentarily cut through the darkness as characters rummage through the foliage in search of some unknown missing object or person. The details hidden in the crevices reveal a world disrupted, at risk of disappearing as bodies merge into a fractured landscape. In New update, and (2022) the distinction between characters and their surroundings is more uncertain. The world that Eyal creates is haunted by the absent and disappeared: “When my brush touched the roof of one of the houses, I could hear them all.”

Eyal weaves together stories from elusive fragments and shards—memories, dreams, nightmares—assembling them in a disfigured whole which becomes a commentary on both the urgency and the impossibility of (coherent) narrative in the face of ongoing chaos and destruction. A heavy wooden wardrobe sits on a woven carpet in the middle of the gallery space, its doors gaping, its drawers spilling out, its innards bursting in silent horror. In The blue ink pocket, and (2022) a self-portrait, once intended to travel internationally in the artist’s place—Eyal identifies painting as the mode best suited to the immigrant artist’s life, being able to transverse borders with relative ease—is now maimed and scattered throughout the wardrobe: an ear in a drawer full of rice, a foot stuffed amongst the cotton in another. Scrawling on the back of the wardrobe in chalk, Eyal describes the process of retrieving these dispersed pieces. Like Frankenstein’s monster, even if recovered, these parts can never be stitched together to reconstruct the artist, whole and functional.

Eyal is also a poet, and text is a crucial component of his practice: a dialogue between image and word underscores the intimate, dreamlike quality of the work. Similarly, it captures the limitations and deficiencies of the available structures for art when surrounded by such catastrophic violence. In This size doesn’t fit everything, and (2021), Eyal fills the back of a framed postcard with the handwritten recollection of attempting to ascertain those responsible for burning his father’s car. The frame itself looks charred, as if it was retrieved from smoldering wreckage. In a lower corner fingers grip the postcard, creating another frame enveloping this painful narrative; Eyal’s writing spills over the borders that can do little to contain it, far exceeding the intended constraints of the space.

In a wall text, Eyal explains how “courtroom drawings,” quickly executed, are for him “a double tool of witness” in which “sometimes the outlines connect and sometimes they do not.” In a series of three 2020 pencil, ink, and gouache drawings—each titled Berlins drawing pad, and—body parts enframe the scene while also unfolding within it; long legs straddle the stage, hands cup vignettes. Once again, the indistinguishability of the frame and the image disrupts any potential linear narrative, instead turning it inside out.

March 2023 marks the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, an event unlikely to be widely marked in America, but whose consequences continue to reverberate through Iraq and the surrounding region. Eyal’s work bears witness to the hundreds of stories that have been lost in the darkness of this history, with very few willing to go in search of them, armed only with a small flashlight.

Painting, War & Conflict
Poetry, Middle East

Dina Ramadan is Continuing Associate Professor of Human Rights and Middle Eastern Studies at Bard College and Faculty at the Center for Curatorial Studies.

RSVP for Ali Eyal’s “In the Head’s Sunrise”
Brief Histories
January 20, 2023

Thank you for your RSVP.

Brief Histories will be in touch.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.