Arabella Dorman, artist: my London cultural life
Arabella Dorman: portraits of soldiers and civilians are on display in London for her powerful testimony, An Artist's Journey Through Afghanistan
Her new show, Before the Dawn – An Artist’s Journey Through Afghanistan exhibits the paintings which emerged from those visits (combined – respect due! – with giving birth to her children, now two and four).
It’s a moving and hugely impressive body of work, chronicling, in Arabella's painterly, impressionistic style, not just the experiences of young British soldiers but also those of the Afghans they lived and fought alongside.
In fact, her show at La Galleria Pall Mall has been made possible with the support of Mirwais Alizai, a 35-year-old Afghan entrepreneur who grew up in Helmand Province. ‘He came to see my work and spent three hours looking at my paintings,’ says Arabella. ‘Then he turned to me and said, “You have captured the soul of my people. We’re not just men with beards and guns. We have hope; we do business." It was the most tremendous endorsement – I felt I had done justice to my subjects.
‘When I told him that I worked with Walking with the Wounded, he asked to meet one of the soldiers so he could personally say thank you for the sacrifice they had made.’
Arabella regards ‘countering the dominant narrative’ (in this case that all or even most Afghans regarded the British as an occupying enemy force) as a central part of her work as an artist. The paradoxical and sometimes contradictory human response to conflict is a theme that runs throughout her work.
‘When I first visited Afghanistan, what stuck me most forcibly was how incredibly young our soldiers are. Most of them are just barely 18 and they have seen things no human being should have to see – it’s etched in their eyes and faces. And yet they also show the most incredible courage and comradeship and professionalism, even when their best mate has just been blown up on patrol.
‘Equally, the Afghans can be ferocious and unsparing but also unbelievably warm and generous. When I travelled independently animals were slaughtered in our honour, and I met with nothing but generosity and hospitality. They are warrior poets who care deeply about beauty.’
Arabella’s work in Iraq and then Afghanistan has evolved into a passionate interest in war-torn regions (much to her husband’s dismay, she’s yearning for Iran, Syria and Eastern Turkey). Her commitment extends to donating 10% of the proceeds from the sale of her paintings (and 100% of ticket sales) to Afghanaid and Walking with the Wounded.
We can’t wait to see the show.
Before the Dawn: An Artist's Journey Through Afghanistan opens on 5th November 2014 at La Galleria Pall Mall, 30 Royal Opera Arcade, London SW1Y 4UY
Arabella Dorman's London cultural life
When I come back to London I go to the National Gallery and just stand and look at the Velázquezes. Walking through that building I feel it somehow houses the world.
I work a lot with music on – usually classical contemporary. My current favourite is Jordi Savall’s Jerusalem Project. I’m very interested in how faith and religion determines people in society and this piece of music attempts an interfaith reconciliation between Jews, Muslims and Christians.
When I cross over Battersea Bridge I get such solace and strength from the ancient river that runs through the heart of London.
Greatest meal you’ve ever had in London?
My husband’s cooking – he does a wonderful Ottolenghi sea bass with Middle Eastern flavours [Grilled sea bass with herb and raisin salsa and chermoula marinade].
Favourite local restaurant?
My studio is in Chelsea and if I’m lucky enough to be taken for lunch by a client, Frantoio in World’s End is where I go. It’s one of the few restaurants I can take my dog Zorba, an Irish terrier – I think it’s because he’s a redhead and so is Frantoio’s owner.
Most memorable aesthetic experience?
Seeing La Traviata at the Royal Opera House on a student ticket for the first time – in fact most of my most sublime aesthetic experiences have been at Covent Garden. I saw Kenneth Macmillan’s ballet Manon the other day and it was mind-blowing.
The Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court has put on some spectacular productions. One in recent years really informed my work; The Fear of Breathing – Stories from the Syrian Revolution, which is a view from the inside out at the civil war there. Events While Manning the Bofors Gun is a play which takes a look at soldiering in general – I actually used one of the actors as a model for my paintings of solders in Afghanistan.
Best place for a first date?
A few drinks at the top of the National Gallery, a look at some paintings, then a walk through St James’s Park and late dinner and live jazz at the Boisdale Club.
Best place to propose?
My husband nearly proposed to me at Santa Sophia in Istanbul but lost his nerve at the last minute (he did it later that night in our hotel room!).
Best for children?
The Horniman Museum in South London – it is deeply eccentric and wonderful.
Where will you be seen this month?
My own exhibition, obviously – and also the Nour Festival of Arts in Kensington and Chelsea which celebrates really fantastic contemporary Middle Eastern and North African arts and culture.
Who is your current cultural crush?
Max Richter is a German-born, British composer. He’s an extraordinary musician who composed, among other things, the score for Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, an animated film about the 1982 Lebanon War.