Art as Resistance: Vian Sora On Veiled Meaning and Unleashed Expression

"My paintings are limited by the material and their size, not by who may see them."

A woman wearing black overalls stands in a studio surrounded by large colorfui canvases
Vian Sora in her studio. Mindy Best

Independent New York opens on May 9 and with it, Iraqi-American painter Vian Sora will present a new body of work with David Nolan Gallery (Booth 606). This follows acquisitions of her work by the Baltimore Museum of Art, Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Shah Garg Foundation, among others, along with recent profiles in Artnet, The Guardian and Vogue Arabia. Hers is a name we’ve encountered by chance several times over the past few months, so when we were presented with the opportunity to ask her a few questions in advance of the May art fair, we jumped at the chance.

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Sora was born in Baghdad in 1976 but has been based in Louisville, Kentucky since 2009, and the tale of how she got from the former to the latter—a story rife with political turmoil, war and dislocation—is central to her work. Her childhood and young adulthood were shaped by her father owning an art gallery, her mother’s work in auctions and the ubiquitous presence of a totalitarian regime.

“Living under a dictator, Saddam Hussein, meant always hiding in fear… constant repression, and our flight or fight instincts always engaged,” Sora told Observer. The subjects of her earlier work were influenced by self-imposed survival-driven boundaries even while serving as veiled acts of resistance, but since leaving Iraq in 2006 and settling in the U.S. with her husband, the constraints she faces have more to do with practicality and privacy.

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Here she has been, as she puts it, ‘unleashed,’ and her vividly colorful abstract canvases speak not only of war and political upheaval and migration but also the potential for unity and transcendence. “Noosphere,” showing at Independent, offers both hope and warnings in paintings that, according to the gallery, “contrast beauty and brutality, chaos and control to symbolize rebirth and growth within a metaphorical detritus, the elemental conditions for our imperiled evolution.”

When Observer caught up with Sora, she shared more about her practice, her approach to figuration and what ‘art as resistance’ means to her.

Last fall, you had a piece in the Meridians section of Art Basel Miami Beach and made your New York solo debut at the David Nolan Gallery—how’d that go?

The end of 2023 was exhilarating since it was my first time exhibiting both in Art Basel and an exhibition in New York. These are tremendous opportunities that have opened many new paths and have spurned even more of my creative vigor.  Each has been career-changing. As my works are being seen by a larger audience, I hope my traverses and paintings may inspire others to never lose hope during their struggles, our collective survival.

Vian Sora, Ecotones II (2023). Copyright the artist, courtesy David Nolan Gallery

Can you tell me something about your process? I’m fascinated by the layering in your paintings.

I initiate each of my works with the canvas flat, then I utilize fast-drying spray paint, acrylics, pigments and inks, applying each in an energetic barrage with brushes, sponges, spray bottles or my breath to move the medium thus creating passages, and moments like ventricles, sometimes tissue. I then use oil to control the disarray, layering various hues in an intuitive process that completes the composition, a visual journey that attempts to constrain chaos, when life regenerates from detritus.

Your work is abstract but some of your paintings seem to (or overtly do) contain figures. Who are they?

All of us or no one, I suspect. Yes, there are works with family members that I have not shown that depict my uncle Amar al-Saffar’s kidnapping and killing as the Deputy Health Minister in Iraq, triggering our families to flee Baghdad to Dubai for refuge. I am currently showing Verdict with David Nolan—an abstracted painting of one being judged by an authority that does not know the individual and where the legal system shifts the presumption of innocence to proving not guilty of being an unworthy refugee, similar to my sister’s asylum proceedings.

How has your practice and your output changed over time? Did your work change markedly when you left Iraq and ultimately settled in the U.S.?

My paintings have taken a radical departure from before 2006 when I fled Baghdad to today. As with experiences and time, I continue to alter my perspectives and the canvas. Many of my earlier works are imbued with imagery and iconography from Iraqi history: Mesopotamia, Babylonian, Assyrian influences, the lost worlds, and often the titles, such as Princess of Ur, set the work in its place, assessable to the viewer. However, the works are not realistic depictions of archeological sites; I use distorted and chaotic applications of paint that seemingly blurs the evident. This is a feature within my works, the tension of full expression. Living under a dictator, Saddam Hussein, meant always hiding in fear from the Baath, constant repression, and our flight or fight instincts always engaged, though never publicly displayed particularly since my father, a Kurdish merchant, was tortured by the regime.

The restraints are mostly unleashed now that I have settled my family in America, and my paintings are limited by the material and their size, not by who may see them. Many of my works in the last ten years distort boundaries as to forms and scenes, the abstract of my paintings, but then there are figurative references laden within, and obscured by vibrant, often clashing, hues of oil. The compositions often appear as aerial views of explosions or bombings, yet then are interwoven to control the elements; what all war survivors and refugees must confront, creating certainty where none exists.

Vian Sora, Dragoman IV (2024). Copyright the artist, courtesy David Nolan Gallery

Talk to me about art as resistance. What does that idea mean to you and how does that manifest in your work?

Practically, while I lived in Baghdad, my painting sales supported our family financially. It in itself propelled my education to a non-Baath-controlled Catholic high school, Dijla, thus resisting becoming a member of the party. I was further recruited into the Iraqi Plastic Arts Union, but would not attend the formal academic art schools supported by the regime, nor did I become a “palace” artist, though I know too many of us who were forced to be so or their survival was in doubt.

Art is also resistance in that my paintings then also addressed atrocities committed in Kurdistan, such as Halabja, or the Anfal campaign. I showed works in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq and Istanbul, Turkey that were laden with Kurdish iconography, but distorted enough so there was no direct reference as an anti-regime work. This line may not be demarcated with any precision, but to veil messages within paintings has been imperative to my survival.

Art as Resistance: Vian Sora On Veiled Meaning and Unleashed Expression