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Visual art as a gateway to storytelling: Behjat Omer Abdulla’s art questions the meaning of displacement and identity in original ways that surprises viewers.

Looking at the postcard straight-on, you see a calm sea. The drawing is incredibly realistic, it looks like a photograph. The waves are small, and the grey tonality gives the impression of an overcast day. There is nothing else on the water, it is peaceful. Holding the postcard between your fingers, you wonder: “that’s it?”. You put the shiny postcard down, and you start walking away. But then you see something change. When looking at the image from the side, a group of six young men – some of them still boys – appears in the middle of the sea. They are standing waist-deep in the water. Bare chests reaching forward towards the viewer, racing towards you. They are unsmiling, they seem cold. You pick the postcard back up, but again, they disappear when the image isn’t at an angle.

A picture containing text, water

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A group of people posing for a picture

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Drawings used for postcards, from “From a Distance”, 2016, graphite powder and pencil on paper, 100x150cm.

This lenticular postcard series is an ongoing project of Behjat Omer Abdulla, the Sulaymaniyah-born artist who has been living in Sweden for the past eight years. In 2016, he received his MFA Fine Art Degree at the HDK-Valand Academy in Gothenburg. He now works as a Freelance Artist and Adjuct Lecture in the Fine Art department of Gothenburg University.

By creating this dual-angled postcard, Abdulla intends to trick the viewer and to show something they usually avoid being confronted by – the reality of displacement, and the harsh experiences of refugees. The postcard series is part of Abdulla’s exhibit “From a Distance”, first shown in 2016 at the Göteborgs Art Gallery in Sweden. While the images are beautiful and thought-provoking when looked at side by side, it’s the story behind them that Abdulla is most interested in telling. “From a Distance” tells the story of a woman’s journey across the Mediterranean Sea. It is written on the back of the postcard:

“(…) During the harsh physical struggle of the journey, the mother lost one of her twin infants. Despite the loss, she kept the dead child with her for days on the boat. As tensions rose, the smugglers tried to force the mother to throw the body of her child into the sea. She refused and kept the body with her. One night, while the mother was sleeping, the smugglers took action. The mother woke to realize that her living child was missing and that she had been left with the dead child. The smugglers had mistakenly thrown the sleeping twin into the sea.”

Sharing these shocking stories is a way for Behjat Omer Abdulla to express the powerlessness he feels when confronted by the reality of displacement. For him, art is not simply about creating aesthetic visuals; it is also about raising awareness, showing others, and asking questions about the meaning of identity.

Abdulla was still a student in Fine Art during the Kurdish revolution of 1991, when the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein weighed heavily on Kurdish peoples’ rights in Iraq. He was raised amid war and perpetual bombing, which marked his worldview. Yet, when he studied art at university, he received a Eurocentric, theory and technique-focussed education. This led him to believe art was removed from the reality of life and the violence he experienced day-to-day. Upon graduating, Abdulla found himself questioning his identity and desire to be an artist. For five years he didn’t create any work. In the meantime, the difficult conditions of life in Iraq forced him to leave, and he embarked on a hard journey towards Europe.

Art doesn’t only help Abdulla tell the stories of others, it has also helped him express and deal with his own experiences as a refugee. Sometimes, his art quite literally saved him. While held captive in a Turkish prison, he was able to avoid deportation by drawing portraits of the prison guards in exchange for food.

After arriving in the UK and completing a BA in Fine Arts, Abdulla began making his art career a priority, and started exhibiting his work in different galleries across Europe. For him, each work of art he creates builds on previous ones: his body of work represents his experiences and the stories of refugees.

A close-up of a dollar bill

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Installation view, Behjat Omer Abdulla, Resignation Syndrome 2019, drawing ink and acrylic on wood, 200 x 200 cm. Location: Dronningens gate 27, 0154 Oslo, Norway.

Abdulla’s work sometimes focusses on the real and little-known issues, such as the “Resignation Syndrome”. By simply writing these words on the drawing of a young girl sleeping, without additional explanation, he invites the viewer to question the title and to discover more about the syndrome that affects the children of refugees when they sense their parents’ fear of deportation.

Behjat Omer Abdulla’s work is powerful. Deeply rooted in personal experience and empathic in its call to action, Abdulla tells compelling stories through his visual art. Using original formats, he pushes the viewer beyond a passive response. Seeing Abdulla’s art is not only humbling, but it also forces the viewer to recognise realities which are often unacknowledged.

To find out more about Behjat Omer Abdulla and his work, you can visit his website: https://www.behjatomer.com/

There, you will find more works of his, including “It’s Your Turn Doctor”, which was exhibited at the Hasselblad Gallery in 2018. This series of drawings tells the story of Mohammad, a young man Abdulla met that survived an aerial bombing in May 2013 in the city of Daraa.

          Daraa Shelling I (It’s your turn doctor) Drawing, Graphite powder, pencil and ink on paper. 105 cm x 75 cm _2018

A room with art on the wall

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Installation view, Hasselblad Gallery, Gothenburg 2018. Photo by Cecilia Sandblom

We recommend taking a look at Behjat Omer Abdulla’s work.

Thank you for sharing your art, and your story with us, Behjat.

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