Desert Rose

(I dream of rain, I dream of gardens in the desert sand, I wake in pain...), 2018
woodcut on cotton, flagpole, suspension, dimensions variable

In March 2011, Vogue magazine published an article titled "A Rose in the Desert" on the First Lady of Syria. Describing her as “glamorous, young, and very chic - the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. […] Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” Asma al-Assad was born and educated in London, working in finance, which she gave up to move to Syria with her husband. For a long time especially her, but also her husband was the symbol for hope and a future of change in the Middle East. The glowing article praises the Assads as a "wildly democratic" family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity, are at ease with American celebrities like Brad Pitt Angelina Jolie and Sting, made theirs the "safest country in the Middle East," and want to give Syria a "brand essence." The Vogue article sparked the idea to create a work on ‘First Ladies’ and lends its name to the title: Desert Rose (I dream of rain, I dream of gardens in the desert sand, I wake in pain…). The series Desert Rose…, 2018 is about the simultaneity of the idyllic and the horrific. It questions the circumstances under which people accept to “look away” and only see a partial truth. Do the women and families have an influence on the autocrats? Are there female dictators? Simone Gbagbo the former First Lady of the Ivory Coast and wife of Laurent Gbagbo was charged with twenty years of prison for crimes against humanity and often described as a more militant version of her husband, similar to “Madame Mao”, who was charged with a lifetime of prison. A contrasting example was Zimbabwean First Lady Sally Mugabe, she supposedly had a soothing influence on her husband Robert Mugabe and Susana Higuchi stood up to her authoritarian husband President Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1994. She publicly denounced him as a “tyrant”. He then gave the status of First Lady to his daughter and divorced his wife. She founded her own political party. It may be asked what options Asma al-Assad has if she would disagree with her husband’s doing? The regime would not tolerate her speaking out against the violence committed in public, or her leaving the country. Is she thusly a tragic figure? She was quoted in the Vogue article, six years ago: “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”

The choice of the title Desert Rose…, 2018 further references Sting’s famous song Desert Rose published in 1999. The lyrics taken into this new context may well be used to describe Asma al-Assad’s situation. “I dream of rain, I dream of gardens in the desert sand, I wake in pain… […] This desert flower, this rare perfume, is the sweet intoxication of the fall“. This combination of the political with pop-culture can also be found in the technique of Desert Rose…, 2018. The woodcut imprint, focusing on the representation of the First Ladies heads on the respective national flags, is referencing the style of Che Guevara’s image taken by photographer Alberto Korda in 1960. To this day the photograph is widely used for merchandise articles such as mugs or t-shirts. Despite Che Guevara being a highly ambivalent figure, having engaged in killings, he is celebrated by mass culture for his martyrdom and his stylised visage is a symbol for rebellion, freedom and counterculture. The series Desert Rose…, 2018 highlights the role of First Ladies as figureheads. It aims to draw attention to the ambivalence and hypocrisy around public and political figures and their idealized representation, created through the “cult of personality” via the means of propaganda, manipulation and mass media.

Works of this series include:

Mrs. Mangue, 50 x 75cm

Mrs. Amer, 50 x 75cm

Mrs. Khalid and Mrs. Omer, 50 x 100cm

Mrs. Lukashenko, 50 x 100cm

Mrs. Peng, 50 x 75cm

Mrs. Ri, 50 x 100cm

Mrs. al-Assad, 50 x 75cm

Mrs. Erdo?an, 50 x 75cm

Mrs. Trump, 50 x 95cm

Miss Kabajewa, 50 x 75cm

Exhibited at

Kunstmuseum Reutlingen, Reutlingen, GE, December 3, 2018 - January 27, 2019

Sebastian Utzni
Desert Rose Rose_1.jpg

Desert Rose (I dream of rain I dream of gardens in the desert sand I wake in pain...),, 2018, woodcut on cotton, flagpole, suspension