We are bombarded daily by fleeting sound bites and quickly rotating posts on social media, grabbing our attention only to be replaced by the next bits of urgent news. Twitter pics and Facebook posts give us a broad but superficial view of what is happening across the globe.
Offering respite in this fog of ephemera is New York artist and educator Alina Gallo, who uses a historical genre to create contemporary social commentary. Her focus is the Middle East and North Africa since the start of the Arab Spring in 2010. Her work draws us into a small space of richly patterned color and nuance, created while living within a particular culture, giving us a glimpse at current events via a time honored method of storytelling art, the miniature.
“My work hopes to offer a contemplative visual space to be present with the events of today. The narratives I interpret in my work are selected from local, national and international media coverage sources, as well as social media uploads via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Each story should contain complexity reflected in both regional and global dynamics within a compassionate framework; touch a human, iconic or archetypical level of consciousness; offer resonance for diverse viewers; refuse ideological dichotomies, and generate positive interest and awareness about the richness and diversity of this region."
Her research background in Ottoman and Safavid Miniature Painting has been in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum Department of Islamic Arts archives in New York, the Topkapi Palace Library in Istanbul, the University of Istanbul Nadir Eserler Library and the Museum of Art at Bowdoin College’s Islamic Manuscript Collection.
Though past work has been done onsite in explosive scale for her compelling Syrian commentary Aleppo 9-2012, Gallo’s present work draws us in on a 18x10.5cm scale, persuading us to stop, to peer closely. These small panels are huge in statement and detail.
“For each painting, I develop drawings and color studies as I follow the depicted story’s development and, when appropriate, contact photographers, journalists or individuals involved via social media. Concurrently, I research how parallel stories with similar narrative dynamics have been depicted in past Timurid, Safavid and Ottoman miniature manuscripts, allowing these historical paintings to influence the composition, tone and symbols of each work.”
Like a modern-day nakkaş, the court painters of the Ottoman Empire, who were required to illustrate the events of their day in a timely manner to suit the schedule of the Sultan, Gallo chronicles news that resonates with her as they occur, connected across the region in themes such as social justice, free speech and protest.
“Adapting the visual languages of Byzantine, Timurid, Safavid and Ottoman miniature paintings, I position our moment in time within an historical context and highlight global exchanges throughout the centuries. The miniature has always recorded with great care and time-consuming processes, including the hand preparation of paint, important historical events. By interpreting the visual language and medium of traditional manuscripts, I connect with this art historical lineage and participate in a tradition that has transformed over time through cultural exchange and appropriation.”
Ottoman art tended more toward portraiture than miniature expressions in other Islamic cultures, portraying events with a realism that conveys an interest in pure subject matter as seen through the eyes of the artist, with a simplified, less decorative technique.
“In material, tempera preparations are amongst the oldest and historically wide spread painting mediums. Pigments were typically “tempered” with gum arabic in the Middle East and Asia, and egg yolk or casein in Europe.” Egg tempera paint is composed of finely ground pigments Gallo sources from Turkey, Italy, and Cyprus, liquefied with small amounts of water, and mixed by hand with egg yolk meticulously added drop by drop as a binding agent. A painstaking process but required for luminous, transparent color. “Once my composition studies and sketches are finalized, I carbon copy transfer the drawing onto a wood panel primed with hand-made gesso. I prepare the paint by hand from traditional color pigments mixed with water and yolk and lastly apply it in many intricate layers to the final work.”
Gallo’s work came to my attention in 2013, after a series of anti-government protests rocked Istanbul. As a longtime resident of Turkey, I was intrigued and inspired to see the outpouring of expression from artists, cartoonists and musicians around the world. Her miniatures spoke in a personal way to many who had watched the wave of social rebellion reach our city, situated as it is at a crossroads between west and east, where Europe and the Middle East meet.
Gallo’s Berkin Elvan Funeral March, 2014, depicts Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who had gone out to buy bread for his family’s meal. He was hit in the head by a tea gas canister fired by a police officer in Istanbul during the Gezi Park anti-government protests. Berkin lingered in a coma for 269 days. Thousands of people attended his funeral March 12, 2014. Though few had known him personally, many bakeries closed as a symbolic gesture and citizens tied loaves of bread to doors and windows with black ribbons. His death sparked more protests in at least 50 cities worldwide over police violence. Gallo was inspired by the Ottoman Funeral of Sultan Selim II 1581 to add a pattern from that work to the shroud covering Berkin Elvan’s coffin.
Kadikoy Riots, 2014 depicts “protests during the night of March 14th in the Kadıköy district of Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city, two days after Berkin Elvan’s funeral. Riot police fired water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, as protesters set off fireworks and threw stones. This scene is inspired by social media depictions of clashes around Kadıköy’s Boğa Heykeli (Bull Statue) monument. The bull is historically a symbol in the Mediterranean region of potency, sacrifice and guardianship. It has an iconic place in the history of this politically center-left Asian side neighborhood.
Along with artists and random bystanders, journalists are caught in today’s crossfire, tasked with reporting news for instant global consumption, while increasing becoming the news itself. Technology has changed the equation, with anyone able to report from nearly anywhere, at anytime. “The reflexive story of journalists becoming the story, the new role they play in conflicts—such as hostages, and the social media elements of news making, are definitely one of the elements I am interested in exploring through these contemporary miniature paintings.”
Gallo's The Last Supper, 2012 was "inspired by Times photographer Tyler Hicks account of the night before Anthony Shadid died en route back to Turkey. Shadid was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Hicks: There I found a carpeted room full of the fighters, now familiar to us … Directly across from me, amid cigarette smoke and sitting among them, was Anthony with a huge smile on his face. He put his arms out and said gleefully, ‘Tyler, look at this!’ … They served a dessert of sweet cheese, doused in a sticky syrup. They ad-libbed to incorporate us into the lyrics of one of their songs, thanking us for coming to Syria to witness their struggle.”
In another powerful work, Gallo explores the story of Molhem Barakat & Al Kindi Hospital, 2014. “On 24 December, 2013 17 year-old photographer Molhem Barakat was killed reporting for Reuters during the battle for Al Kindi Hospital in Aleppo, Syria. His death raised many questions about the accountability of news agencies including training, wages, insurance, safety equipment, and under age employment of freelance, often local, journalists. Molhem’s photographs from Syria embedded with his brother rebel fighter were published, the New York Times among others. British journalist Hannah Lucinda Smith who knew Molhem brought his story to the attention of the global community raising questions about how it was that an inexperienced teenager came to be working for a major news organization in a war zone. His story illuminates a changing demographic of reportage photographers, best practices within media agencies. Here Molhem’s ghost walks away from his fractured body and camera, while within the crumbling Al Kindi Hospital an adolescent boy attempts to keep an injured girl alive with an oxygen bag, her fate still uncertain.”
Gallo continues to have an endless supply of subject matter on which to turn her focus, with refugees struggling to reach the haven and hell of Lampadusa, or the ongoing battle between the Kurdish Peshmerga, ISIS and NATO powers at Kobani in Syria. Advocating for fallen journalists as well as those who protest, Alina Gallo’s simple, profound commentary takes no side but to illuminate the details she feels relevant to tell their tale. Like the best storytellers, in every age.
For more of Alina Gallo’s work, please visit her site, www.alinagallo.com.