What is it like to grow up in Scotland in an Iraqi family? A close examination of the nature of this experience lies at the heart of Emii Alrai’s practice. The artist is fascinated by the sense of ‘inherited nostalgia’ that she feels for a place she has not visited before – a nostalgia received from relatives through the fables and oral histories that have shaped the lives of her family and ancestors – and the sense of fragmented identity that accompanies this. Her work is informed by the spoken traditions and ancient mythologies of the Middle East, alongside the western appropriation of cultural objects, artifacts and language.
Her upcoming solo exhibition at The Tetley in Leeds continues the artist’s history of working at epic scale with an ambitious new sculptural installation. The High Dam takes the form of a five-metre-long boat, containing a series of ‘invented objects’ that resemble ‘finds’ and fragments from an archaeological dig. The display vessel is based on a bitumen-formed model found in an Ancient Akkadian gravesite. Bitumen boats were thought to be placed halfway down burial shafts and are believed to have been used as ‘demon lures’, designed to trap and distract demons from pillaging grave goods buried beneath.
By presenting sculptures as ancient artifacts in a display resembling a museum diorama based on a booby trap, The High Dam engages in a witty and incisive critique of western museological practices. Following the success of Alrai’s two solo exhibitions, Tutelaries at VITRINE in London and House of Teeming Cattle at Two Queens in Leicester, both last year, her upcoming presentation at The Tetley looks unlikely to disappoint. This is an artist to watch.