Jala Wahid Seventeen Gallery / London

October 9, 2017

Jala Wahid doesn’t mess around. Entering this basement gallery-cum-meat storage facility one is met by the jagged profile of a polished black spike, emerging from the wall like the fingernail of an irascible giant. Its title, Final Blade (all works 2017), indicates that this is the end of an earlier line of experimentation with jesmonite, a gypsum-based composite whose flexibility as a material has helped to shape the artist’s particular brand of bodily evisceration.

In No Hold Too Strong — a pair of oversized amputated thighs whose raw waist is treated with smears of red animal fat — a mixture of jesmonite and aluminum produces a dull, matte silver that appears numb to the pain. By contrast, Bare and Writhe, in which two rounded hunks hang from the ceiling on chains like the remnants of shorn carcasses, overlays its jesmonite base with a sickly green pigment enveloped in glass wax and honey. With a surface pockmarked by grapefruit peel, this is a vision of putrefaction as fascinating as it is nauseating.

Yet the thrust of the show is the compelling automythology produced by Wahid’s combination of uncanny bodily empathy and linguistic sensibility. This is exemplified in Akh Milk Bile Threat, a graffitied “Akh!” painted onto the wall in a mixture of pigment, breast milk and ox bile. Both form and content here reflect Wahid’s Kurdish heritage — the medium is used for body tattoos while the word itself defies translation, sitting on a spectrum between pain and relief. With meaning malleable and contingent on context, the work encapsulates the artist’s interest in Kurdistan’s undocumented histories and the extent to which they are “archived on a body.” Up close it is less a painting than a peeling, with the material’s curious consistency rendering it simultaneously permanent and fugitive. This vision of the body as text-in-flux is elaborated further next door in Oh Leander!, a video installation in which the “Akh” flickers across mutable stanzas against an oily mass of deep red gelatin. Addressing a world of confined spaces, Jala Wahid is becoming the bard of borderless meanings.

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