Artist-in-residence at the jamjar, Alina Gallo meets Peter Feely to explain the political and social ideas and events that inspire her paintings and murals.
Working on murals that touch on the troubling Syrian conflict, the artist that greets me in her temporary studio is unreserved, sharp and intense. Ideas and opinions irrupt from her petite frame as she ricochets between different waves of thought, ranging from Western misconceptions about Islamic art to Middle Eastern history and media bias. Yet she also conveys a sense of intelligence, profundity and passion. Her unfinished wall murals are based on photographs from the war-torn city of Aleppo; enlarged copies of the outlines of the marks left in walls following a blast.
Gallo, an Italian-American, shows me a small printed draft of her work. I ask if the use of red is related to the bloodshed of the conflict. She’s characteristically expansive in her response: ‘I see what you mean now, with the red and the bloody walls, but I wanted the form to transcend simply being just about violence, death and destruction to also being a form of really high velocity, expansion and transformation that’s uncontrolled.’
Although Gallo confronts the ugly topic of conflict, there’s also an element of aesthetic cohesion and beauty to the shapes formed by the blasts. Particularly through her use of pre-Renaissance tempura- painting techniques – an egg-based material which adds a luminescent, golden quality to the work. This isn’t lost on the young artist, who is also hoping to ‘create a place to rest because hopefully it will be deep, intricate and beautiful and have a presence – a contemplative space’. Yet the seriousness of her subject matter is never far from her mind, as she hopes her work provokes people to ‘meditate as they walk by on what it might be like to walk on the streets [of Aleppo]’.
This dedication to authenticity is understandable; the mother, father, grandmother and brother of one of Gallo’s friends from Syria are still trapped in the war-torn city due to illness. When I ask about her contacts, she mentions friends, facebook and Reuters journalists – ‘I don’t know where or who took some of these photographs and if they still exist – if that wall is gone now?’
The murals also include depictions of contemporary graffiti from the Middle East, which Gallo hopes will be, ‘a point of reference for us now as we’re used to seeing those kinds of things – we can see it appear on our walls. It makes it more relevant and touchable for us – it’s a visual element that we can relate to’.
I ask her if she feels any deeper understanding of the situation but she remains pragmatically unsure. ‘I don’t think the people who are talking to the people in Aleppo even know what’s going on?’ She relates the sudden social breakdown in Syria to the Balkan War in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, where former friends and neighbours fought each other in sectarian violence: ‘My [Syrian] friend Noorah was telling me that she went to school with very diverse groups: Sunni, Shia, Christian, and they didn’t think twice about it.’
Perhaps inspired by the difficulty reporting the chaotic nature of war, Gallo has also turned to the topic of journalism as one of her muses: ‘A miniature series I’m working on is focussing on journalists within the context of the Arab Spring – I wanted to illuminate the sense that journalists are our storytellers and there’s always a lens to put those stories through and there’s a method to the storytelling and a method for why stories get told or don’t get told – it’s very authentic.’ (Gallo is also working on a candid piece about Dubai, inspired by her observations on JBR). The miniatures are modified versions of traditional 16th-century Persian paintings, which have decorative elements and, due to their bright colours and flat perspective, a childlike innocence. This creates a powerful juxtaposition against some of the more modern issues that she addresses.
The colourful ‘Destruction of Homs’ features an illustration of The Times journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed by shrapnel in the city in February 2012. When I ask about this paradox, she answers astutely and accurately – ‘there are lots of doorways into a challenging and painful subject matter’.