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    This is part of why Vian Sora believes miracles happen:

    It was 2003, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Sora, a promising young artist who’d had successful shows in Baghdad, was on her way back to that city, her home, with her family, having waited out the siege in a nearby village where she painted by lamplight. Baghdad is where she’d dug around in her grandparents’ garden as a child, carrying sediment to the fountains to make clay. This is where she had grown up living a double life, keeping her mouth shut during the day about the egalitarian beliefs her family espoused in private at night, and the documentary about the plight of her fellow Kurds they’d secreted into Iraq. This is where, every evening, just before the kids’ cartoons, she and her sister found ways to watch Images From the Battlefield, which showed dead Iranians during the Iraq-Iran war — which she describes as “grotesque,” “fascinating.” This is where her grandfather had kept exotic birds in a habitat he’d made under an outdoor stairwell, where Sora says a “crazy,” “hilarious” uncle had bought her a small falcon for her birthday. It was the city where she went to Catholic school, though her family was Muslim, because her parents wanted to broaden her horizons. It’s where she’d been hit by a car, an accident that resulted in surgeries and years walking on crutches. It’s where she’d attained a computer-science degree from Al Monsour University, though her parents had pushed her toward art school, which she skipped because she didn’t want to paint like anyone else. And it was the city some of her neighbors had returned to in coffins wrapped in flags. Before all that, or before the worst of it, her parents had flown her and her sister to Europe often, up until the airplanes were grounded. And now, with Saddam Hussein toppled from power, it was a shelled city, without consistent electricity in the 120-degree summer. Not even generators could make up for the loss of infrastructure. Sora’s family’s home had been looted. Despite this, after they’d arrived, passing the rubble and the dead, Sora started painting again. Before fleeing Baghdad, she’d been picked up by a Danish company that was organizing a huge show for her in Istanbul. Her mother tried to bring her to reality gently: They are not coming for you, Vian.

    Sora's recent art is far more abstract than her earlier work.

    But Sora would not listen. In the sweltering heat she stabbed at her noxious oils, filling up all that blank white. She would cope this way in the future as well, starting dozens of paintings in the wake of her grandmother’s death, for example, or telling anyone who suggested she see a therapist that her outlet was art, though that outlet has evolved over the years. Back then, she was painting work inspired by fairytales, things distance has taught her to be a form of escapism. But they would end up transporting her somewhere else. They did come for her. The Danish company, that is. Long story short: They drove a caravan of four cars to Turkey, where Sora’s October 2003 show, Nehir, Sehir, Misairat, took place in the Topkapi Palace Museum.

    “This is why I believe miracles happen,” Sora says. It’s a clear day in April, and she’s sitting in the sunroom off her accommodating kitchen in the East End, the glass ceiling sloping overhead, while below, her huge koi pond drapes curtains of water down into itself, where a school of the most vibrant koi, at least as big as my forearms, circle lazily. Sora, who was looking for something “zen” when she and her husband moved into this house from their place in Cherokee Park, calls them her dragon babies.

    You could call much else in Sora’s life miraculous. For starters, there’s the fact that she still has a life, despite all the death and destruction and persecution she has seen. There is not enough space here to talk about her uncle who was kidnapped and tortured, or her father who was kidnapped and presumed dead until he just showed up one day. There is not enough space here to explore her time working for the Associated Press after returning to Iraq following her show in Turkey, or the co-workers she knew who were killed. There’s not enough space to chart how she fell in love with her husband, an American attorney who purchased some of her work, when the AP sent her to London in 2005, or about their short courtship, complicated by geography, how he moved to Istanbul to be close to her before they moved together to Dubai, and eventually Louisville, all while Sora’s work was receiving more and more international acclaim. “It’s a crazy history,” Sora says. “When I think about some of the things, I feel like I lived 200 years. And I’m 42. I feel like, wow, this is enough for two centuries of craziness.” To tell all those stories, you need a lot of space, about 48 inches by 48 inches’ worth of canvas.

    Unbound Domains runs at Moremen Gallery until May 25.

    What occupies that space has changed for Sora over the years. Walking down to her basement studio, she passes works from earlier in her career — dignified women in soft hues, Middle Eastern iconography. The work is rich with cultural symbols. But some of Sora’s earlier pieces read falsely to her now, like she was trying to paint over difficult truths with images of pride and grace. “There was a lot of like — it’s like a woman who just got slapped on the face, and she’s putting her makeup on and walking very proud,” she says. “And it’s very difficult to say that now, but I’m never afraid of living my truth anymore.”

    All of the pieces in Sora’s latest show, Unbound Domains, up at Moremen Gallery on West Main Street until May 25, are far more abstract, and if not more removed from her past, at least less directly representational of it. The large-scale works, many of them products of months of free exploration of color and form, feature complex backgrounds that feel almost expressionist, with snatches of neon color. Soft and cool colors fester across the canvas into bloody concoctions; violent swaths of fiery hues calm into moody greens. Stare long enough and you will find things hidden in the paintings — a moon here, a figure there, or maybe even a few things that aren’t really anything at all, like what you see when you name the shapes of clouds. Sora thinks of the work not as being about her experiences, but being driven by them. For her, that explosive section of a painting could be reminiscent of a car bomb, though a viewer might never make that connection. One wonders if abstraction becomes a kind of armor in her work, a way of confronting past trauma without being overwhelmed by discernible representations of it.

    "We are all humans in the end. What we like, and what we represent, is what was enforced on us by our parents and
    cultures and geography." // Photo by Mickie Winters

    After a lot of bureaucratic headaches, her parents have moved here; her sister lives in America, and her brother is an Australian citizen. Sora herself has lived in Louisville for about 10 years. “And in the end, I became an American citizen. As much as I hate stereotypes about Iraq, I hate them about Louisville and Kentucky, and I feel like it’s important to my placement right now as being an artist in the South,” she says. Her identity can’t be dissected into constituent parts: she is not only an Iraqi, not only a Louisvillian. “I would never exclude just being Iraqi,” she says. “No matter what’s our belief, I feel it’s a time to not necessarily separate who we are. Of course we’re all unique — in our backgrounds, in our sexual preferences, all these things. But I feel this is a time where we need to be on the same level as humans, in a non-cheesy way. Like, really: We are all humans in the end. What we like, and what we represent, is what was enforced on us by our parents and cultures and geography. In the end, I could be probably similar to you if I grew up like you; vice versa.”

    The lower level of Sora’s house looks like it’s hosted a sophisticated version of a Day-Glo party. Paint nearly covers one section of the tile floor, and Sora points out shoeprints in it, themselves a record of her practice. She comes down here in the mornings, after her coffee or tea, and gets to work, usually starting with a flat canvas. She employs varied techniques, including stripping paint off the artwork for a textured, ethereal quality, while her cat — who, judging by her command of the studio space (and utter destruction of a circular Italian leather sofa), was likely an artist in a past life — keeps her company, along with the dragon babies out the window. In a back room, Sora has some of her oldest artwork, including a few damaged pieces that survived a car bombing at her father’s gallery back in Baghdad. She tells me that, the second time a car bomb went off near the gallery, her father survived because he’d happened to go to the bathroom. She spreads some of the damaged, curled-up canvases out on the floor — figurative pieces, far removed from her current work. Then she places them back and turns out the light. Outside, finally, it’s spring. The dragons are warm in the sun, and the trees are forging new growth.

    This originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Unbound." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo by Mickie Winters,

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    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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