Elyas Alavi: Daydreamer Wolf

Feature

Timing is everything. Writing just days after the March 15th massacre in which an Australian man shot 100 people, killing 50, in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the subject matter of Elyas Alavi’s solo show, Daydreamer Wolf, becomes all too real. Commenting on this act of terrorism, journalist and academic Waleed Aly pointed out with brutal clarity that although it was terrifying and heart-wrenching, he was not shocked. These acts have become all too familiar. We’ve seen it before; killing sprees motivated by hate hit the headlines with alarming regularity. But even though this horrific event is not unique, luckily it is still out of the ordinary, at least here in Australia. But as Alavi makes clear, in some parts of the world slaughter driven by hate happens monthly, weekly, daily.

Originally from Afghanistan, Alavi is part of the Hazara people, an ethnic minority. Fleeing persecution, he moved to Iran at the age of six with most of his family. At the age of 24, he moved solo to Australia but still keeps in touch with his family members; some in Afghanistan, others in Iran, Sweden and France. In his video Salam. Khoobi? (Hello. How are you?), 2019, Alvai presents some of these Skype conversations: a sister in Afghanistan tells him that there has been another suicide bomber attack, elsewhere the children of another sister are laughing and playing in a French park. “It just shows how on one day there are different things happening to the people in one family,” he explains. The inclusion of a bombing in this matter-of-fact statement is exactly the point Alavi is making.

“It’s hard to understand in Australia,” he says, “but you realise incidents like this are happening weekly in places like Afghanistan. And people are desperate. They are saying, look at our lives, we are in danger.”

As a former refugee who now finds himself in a relatively safe place, the Adelaide-based artist feels a responsibility to give those left behind, those living with vilification, religious persecution and hate-motivated violence, a voice. “So I have this privilege,” Alvai says, “living there and coming here, so I felt like, I can at least do that; play a very small part.”

And Alavi, who is a poet as well as an artist, also responds to the less life-threatening perils of displacement. His title Daydreamer Wolf (from his first book of poetry, I’m A Daydreamer Wolf, 2008) is a nod to the masks one must wear, the things one must sacrifice in order to survive. The wolf, he explains, is the essential kernel of self that remains, often hidden but independent and strong despite the privations of forced migration, despite the loss of family and homeland. “I love the wolf,” he says, “because somehow I feel that the wolf is a creature that stays as it is.” And the wolf, Alavi explains, “is always daydreaming of going back to the forest.” Or, in his case, of going back to the village he came from.

Elyas Alavi. Photograph by Grant Hancock.

On one trip home, while visiting family in Afghanistan, Alavi experienced the horror of terrorism first hand. In July 2016 he was present during a bombing attack which targeted a Hazara-led protest in a public square in Kabul. Almost on auto-pilot, Alavi shot some video footage. But then, on returning to Australia, he felt too traumatised to process the event. “I myself felt that I could not handle this incident. It was beyond my capacity; especially how close I was. And how big it was.” Alavi was injured, along with hundreds, maybe thousands of others, but 88 people died that day. Eventually he felt he needed to make work about the bombing; to bear witness. “I was there. And I felt it,” he explains. “I feel like those kind of events are so big, but at the same time they just fade away. People forget because the people who were there don’t have a voice really.”

Alavi gives the victims of this act of terrorism a voice in his video We die so that, 2017-2018, shot in the aftermath of the explosions, and also in his 2018 suite of painted portraits on glass, 113. The use of glass is symbolic, he explains, not only of the bomb-shattered glass that injured him, but also of “how the life of someone who belongs to a minority is so fragile and glass-like. And how the human body is so very, very fragile.” Alavi adds, “I don’t believe in miracles, but just 10 minutes before I was inside the square.” Timing is everything.

Elyas Alavi: Daydreamer Wolf
ACE Open
3 May – 20 July

This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Tracey Clement