Sadik Alfraji’s current exhibition at Ayyam Gallery drenches visitors in melancholic existentialism...

Perched above the New Bond Street branch of Ralph Lauren, Ayyam Gallery exists in the presence of fluttering flags and polished, gleaming doormen. Dripping with money, it seems an unlikely scene in which to find the philosophically explosive work of Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. Yet, nestled amongst the creeping limos are his eerie, shadowy figures, ridden with melancholic existentialism.

My meeting with Alfraji quickly evolves into something resembling a philosophy seminar. We talk about the title; I do not feel that I am free. Alfraji believes that each of us are subject to the overbearing influences of a number of things that restrict our freedom; our bodies, biology, memories, society, religion and politics, to name but a few. He says that these are the mechanisms that seep into our subconscious, moulding the way we think and forming the choices that we make. “Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you don’t,” he adds. He disputes Sartre’s claim that “we are condemned to be free” and his latest work is a manifestation of this. He says that, “here, I am expressing my vision of freedom.”

Through the show, a floating, footless figure drifts from painting to painting. He has no name but is a recurring form in the imagination of Alfraji. He is but a shadow; a mass of black, layers of charcoal and Indian ink, stretching like a giant above us. On closer inspection, his skin is cracked and tired. Lines snake through planes of darkness, punctuated only by his detailed hands and eyes, echoes of a concrete world.

With an essence of realism present only fleetingly, Alfraji boils the human form down to a much simpler aesthetic. He keeps the hands and eyes because these are what he calls the “tools” to contact the world around you; the eyes search for light and the hands grope through the unknown, vacuum of uncertainty. “They put me in touch with my existence,” he adds. The artist however refuses to read too much into his creation’s presentation; “He just comes like this and I welcome him.”

Two video pieces feature in the show. One, the torturously beautiful ‘Godot to Come Yesterday’, re-envisions Samuel Beckett’s notorious play, ‘Waiting for Godot.’ “I have changed it according to my vision,” Alfraji states. His vision is a sobering thought. “We will never find answers. It is our destiny, my dear… to wait forever.” As he says this, he peers intently at me through his perfectly round spectacles. Behind the screen of ‘Godot to Come Yesterday’, two glistening figures drift in darkness, curling and unfurling like puppets in a slow-motion dream. The wind whistles an eerie accompaniment to the lilting Arabic narration, rich with excruciating yearning.

Born in Iraq, Alfraji migrated to the Netherlands in the early 1990s. He agrees that the suffering of his homeland may have made him sharper to what he calls the “problem of existence.” However, this is not what formed his questioning character. He recalls always being fond of figures such as Sartre and Baudelaire and describes himself as “a very emotional artist.” Just like his figures, Alfraji seems to float in the space of existentialism, refusing to be explained or defined. He believes that to have a firm identity would put him at odds with contemporary art and so, he accepts the uncertainty which lingers in us all.