13 June 2023
Driving through paradise with
by Kate Mothes
One of the beautiful contradictions of cruising down the open road is the simultaneous feeling freedom to roam a veritably infinite landscape while at the same time being contained within the hard sides of a vehicle. Containment in this sense equates to a feeling of safety and security, like a personal force field separating one from the outside world, with its inhabitants no less immersed in it. Juxtaposing the experience of car journeys with the walled motifs of Islamic paradise gardens, British-Lebanese artist Alia Hamaoui taps into playful, unexpected parallels between voyages and enclosures.
Comprising Passing Para-daiza—the inaugural exhibition at Soup Gallery in London and the artist’s first gallery solo exhibition—Hamaoui’s recent works explore the psychology and rituals of traversing land and time. The viewer is invited into a vicarious experience through snippets the artist has accumulated, such as images of dashboards and rearview mirrors decorated with an Evil Eye amulet, photographs, or flowers. “The specific car interior she envisions is akin to taxis in bustling cities, such as Beirut, Gaza, or Tehran,” Róisín Tapponi writes in an accompanying essay. “Where, more often than not, the driver will pour out his whole life story and make heavy eye contact through a rearview mirror adorned with spiritual paraphernalia.”
In creating these works, the artist, too, is on a kind of vicarious journey, as she begins by feeding keywords into an AI engine to source images related to “car interior” or “Islamic Garden.” She then digitally manipulates them, transposing or adding elements that relate specifically to her knowledge and experiences. UV-printed onto a surface of dyed sand, their literal graininess is redolent of instant film photographs snapped during a road trip or the desert landscape in places like Egypt or Jordan where tourists bottle up samples of sand to remember their visits to the Great Pyramids or Petra.
During the past few years, as a result of pandemic lockdowns and a personal loss that was made more difficult by distance, Hamaoui has been drawn more than ever to open, green spaces within London, where she lives, and the ostensively limitless possibilities of traveling by car. Within an urban park, the boundary of bustling traffic and tall buildings can be temporarily out of sight and out of mind in a way that parallels how moving in a car—somewhat ironically, traffic jams aside—can assuage feeling stuck.
As mobile havens in which people commute, work, escape, or simply run errands, cars and taxis have long been associated with freedom and flexibility, in no small part thanks to the automobile industry’s savvy marketing. In the first documented advertisement in 1898, consumers were urged to “dispense with a horse” along with “expense, care, and anxiety.” An in a trope still seen today, the newest model is commonly shown in the foreground of expansive landscapes or tearing down city avenues completely free of other pedestrians or cars.
Juxtaposed together in Passing Para-daiza, the aspirational notion of moving through maze-like streets with ease, comfort, and peace resonates with a kind of spiritual experience one might achieve by wandering along the choreographed paths of a paradise garden. The walls provide a boundary and a frame for its contents along with a sense of sacredness, a place of sanctuary. Exposed yet protected, the enclosure enables the adventure.
Hamouai’s solo exhibition Passing Para-daiza with Soup Gallery continues through June 17, which also marks the release of a publication from Foolscap Editions. Find more on the artist’s website and Instagram.
All images © Alia Hamaoui, courtesy of the artist and Soup Gallery
Header image: Detail of Shaded Containment (Front-View), 2023. UV print on dyed sand and aluminum with iridescent perspex mount and aluminum frame, 50 x 64.5 centimeters