Like me, Iraqi-British artist Athelier Mousawi has found a muse in jellyfish. He paints huge canvases bursting with bright colors and boundaries that scream around curves and screech to a halt at corners. This tension between intertwined organic forms meticulously restrained by clean edges creates a harmonious chaos of color and contour that is both surprising and gorgeous.
Although he was born in London, Mousawi’s family is Iraqi, and he calls Iraq “the center of gravity in my life.”
As Mousouwi meditated on the war, and in particular the unmanned drones that that ravaged his family’s homeland, he conjured the idea of jellyfish. “Watching them [drones] gliding, they are so deadly, but also innocent in a way. I started making this parallel with the jellyfish in that neither of them have a central brain, but they both hunt and kill. They have a calmness of the body from above, but from below it’s fear and destruction.”
In each painting of his recent series, called Man of War, the smooth curved shape of a bell hovers near a riotous arrangement that, from a distance, gives the impression of twisted tentacles and oral arms. Up close, the shapes are disembodied hands, feet, and teeth. Oval red blood cells are a repeating theme, as are gas masks and vacant eyes.
The comparison between drones and jellyfish is apt. Scientists have documented the stealth abilities of the comb jelly, Mnemiopsis leydii, also called a sea walnut. Not a true jellyfish, comb jellies don’t use the familiar undulating jet propulsion, but instead crawl through the water by waving rows of cilia.
Studies of the physics behind this locomotion show that the creatures barely disturb the water as they swim. They create no warning turbulence or wake as they sneak up on unsuspecting prey. At one scientific meeting, I heard researchers describe a bloom of these surreptitious animals, “like a wall of death” because of their thorough decimation of plankton populations.
The success of stealth is born out in the expanding range of the sea walnut. They were once only found on the east coast of North America, but have now invaded waters stretching from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Mousawi says he became obsessed with the idea of “jellyfish and bombs.” This comparison, too, has an example in nature. In 2000, a new jellyfish called the spotted jellyfish (Phylorhiza punctata) invaded the Gulf of Mexico. In just three months its numbers multiplied into the millions. In places “super-swarms” of spotted jellies decimated all available fish eggs, copepods, larvae that usually make up the plankton. Shrimpers stopped fishing. Economic losses reached into the millions of dollars.
The spotted jellyfish created such devastation using a mechanism never observed before. By pinching off pieces of the undersides of their bells, the jellyfish created balls of flesh armed with stinging cells. Like unmanned drones, spotted jellyfish bombed the plankton with these toxic grenades.
Mousawi points out that unmanned drones mean we now fight wars at greater and greater distances, having the effect of removing the guilt from war. So too, jellyfish, with a primordial neurology are ignorant of the destruction they cause. But whereas jellyfish are not culpable because they have no self-awareness, we do. Ancient, jellyfish are pre-guilt, but we have consciousness, and therefore responsibility. The guilt is ours.
The Portuguese man o’ war, for which the exhibition is named, is a colonial jellyfish, a collection of many separate individuals that rely on each other for survival. A metaphor for this friction between the individual and the whole is seen in Mousawi’s rowdy use of color.
He explains, “[Color] is where difficulties arise, but also, when you come out the other end, and you’ve managed to form a real cohesive composition with loads of color pallets fighting against each other, but working together, that’s when the work starts to achieve its best results.”
For me, the metaphor can go even farther. We are all interconnected on this planet, individuals of brash colors and disparate ideals sharing the single colony of earth. To repeat Mousawi, working together, that’s when we start to achieve our best results. And it begs the question at the heart of Mousawi’s exhibition: why do we persist in being men (and women) of war?