Ghazel uses ballpoint pens to draw universally understood symbols — such as the sun, trees, houses, hearts and suitcases — on world maps Image Credit: Supplied

Iranian artist Ghazel's work is defined by her nomadic existence. She was 19 years old when she left Iran to study art in France. Since then, she has lived in various cities around the world and at present divides her time between Iran and Europe. She channels her personal experiences of being an exile, who has homes in many places but cannot feel at home anywhere, to explore universal themes of displacement, identity and alienation. Although she deals with serious and complex subjects, Ghazel's style is simple, direct and full of humour.

The artist is well known for her performance videos and installations. But for her first exhibition in Dubai she has chosen to display for the first time a series of drawings along with three videos. Titled Geo-politics of Roots — No Man's Land, the show comments on the human longing and need for roots and the socio-political forces that uproot people from the place where their heart belongs.

Ghazel uses ballpoint pens to create her child-like drawings of universally understood symbols such the sun, trees, houses, hearts and suitcases. But what is really interesting is that each of the drawings has been done on a map of the world. Through these drawings she makes the entire world her own. The roots and branches of her trees spread across countries, unhindered by any borders. And she builds her houses where she pleases, with no worries about immigration rules or discrimination on the basis of race or nationality. The houses are perched on top of the trees or sprout roots of their own in an attempt to find stability, permanence and belonging.

Poignant reminders

The suitcases tell their own story. Sometimes they are pitched like tents at the bottom of the map as a poignant reminder of displaced refugees longing for a homeland, migrants in search of a better life or exiles trying to find roots in an alien environment. The suitcases also reflect our increasingly nomadic contemporary lifestyle and serve as a metaphor for the emotional and cultural baggage we carry with us wherever we go.

In some drawings, the suitcases also grow roots, suggesting the desire and possibility of finding roots in new environments and being comfortable in many different places, just as Ghazel claims to be. The recurring heart motif suggests that home is where the heart is.

"Earlier I used to do very serious, complex pieces filled with typically Iranian symbols, because I was trying to resolve my guilt and sorrow about leaving my family during the Iran-Iraq war and losing friends in that war. But I have now simplified my vocabulary by using these child-like drawings and a dose of humour, because I want to communicate with everybody.

"I have often used maps in my performance videos because they are an easily understood metaphor for boundaries, roots and being uprooted. For example, I used a map as a fan in a video titled Global Warming. So when I decided to go back to drawing after a break of many years, it seemed like a good idea to draw on a map. The map I use is a political map, but I have removed the political aspect by scratching out the flags with my pen or covering them with the roots," Ghazel says.

"My early work was titled Me and was focused on my feelings and experiences. But the story that I am telling now of roots, branches, houses and suitcases is everybody's story. The houses are portraits of the people who live in them. So this series represents a transition from Me to We," Ghazel adds.

Interestingly, most of the 31 drawings are incomplete because Ghazel decided that she would use only one ball-point pen for one drawing and stop when the ink runs out. And that is why every drawing is titled The Lifespan of a Ballpoint Pen.

"In my first piece, the ink ran out when I was halfway through, and I just loved the idea of letting the pen decide when the drawing was done. But gradually I got better at judging how long the ink would last and had more control in terms of the areas I wanted to emphasise," she says. Perhaps this alludes to her problems with immigration authorities, who dictate how long she can stay in any country and how she has now become adept at dealing with them.

Multiple issues

In her videos, Ghazel can be seen drawing the same trees with roots and branches. But she also adds some human figures hanging on the branches. These stick figures, suspended in mid-air perhaps represent those who have died fighting for their right to a homeland or those who are desperately hanging on to their roots; or maybe these are people who have been rendered homeless and stuck in a no man's land by man-made borders and political strife.


Jyoti Kalsi is an art enthusiast based in Dubai.


Geopolitics of Roots — No Man's Land will run at Carbon12Dubai until January 8, 2012.