Vian Sora (b. Bagdad, Iraq, 1976) received a BS from Al Mansour University in Baghdad, Iraq in 2000, and an MBA from Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky in 2012. She also studied printmaking at the Istanbul Museum of Graphic Art in Istanbul, Turkey. She lives and works in Louisville, KY, USA.
Utilizing a synthesis of styles and iconography taken from both her native, modern and ancient Iraq and adopted cultures, along with a variety of techniques, Vian Sora’s mixed media paintings embody imagery that suggests the struggle of the individual in the face of personal and social upheaval, often employing androgynous figures that transmute into expressionist abstraction. Her work also takes inspiration from such disparate modern masters as Chaïm Soutine, Willem de Kooning, and Gerhard Richter, whose Birkenau cycle paintings the artist viewed in Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie. Sora’s paintings reflect the zeitgeist of the city while also expanding her vibrantly expressive color palette and distinctive visual language. Having personally experienced several wars while living in Iraq, Sora's search for beauty is translated in her compositions through a conscious embrace of decay, resulting in bright, metaphorical “landscapes” that simultaneously signify both the turmoil and dynamics of change. Dense with ideas, the distillation of experiences, and the transmission of emotion, her atmospheric surfaces, layered with optical ambiguities that create illusions of light and movement, of time and space, allow her to express untold emotional landscapes.
Vian Sora’s work has been included in solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally including the Speed Museum, Louisville, KY; Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH; Sharjah Biennale, Sharjah, UAE; Imoga Istanbul Museum of Graphic Art, Istanbul, Turkey; Japanese Foundation Culture Center, Ankara, Turkey; and the Baghdad Art International Art Festival in Iraq; as well as the KMAC Triennial, Louisville, KY; The Shands Collection, Louisville, KY; Grinnell Museum of Art, Grinnell, Iowa; Louisville Metro Hall, Louisville, KY; and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington D.C., among others. Sora’s paintings are included in the collections of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY; Shands Collection, Louisville, KY; KMAC Museum, Louisville, KY; Grinnell College Museum of Art, Grinnell, IA; Dar El Cid Museum, Kuwait City, Kuwait; Ministry of Culture Contemporary Collection, Baghdad, Iraq; the Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OH; as well as numerous private and corporate collections.
Born and raised in Baghdad, Vian Sora witnessed multiple wars in Iraq firsthand, suffering personal loss while sharing in the collective loss of her country. From a young age, she used art as an outlet to work through the trauma of conflict and displacement.
Luis De Jesus Los Angeles began The Armory Show with a bang. With a compelling booth of newly created paintings by artists June Edmonds, Evita Tezeno, Vian Sora, Laura Krifka, and Nicolas Grenier, the gallery appeared to have one of the most visited booths at the fair. Within minutes of the opening, the gallery had sold work by Sora, Edmonds, and Tezeno. A gallery representative noted that sales were going strong by mid-day Thursday, with multiple pieces going to prominent collections in Malaysia, Texas, and Pittsburgh, plus institutional queries lined up for that evening.
At first glance, Vian Sora’s works look like cosmic implosions. Flat, organic forms act as viewfinders for boisterous textures that resemble bubbling, oozing acid; wet, dense cement; and hazy cosmic dust. But Subduction, the artist’s first solo exhibition at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, does not speak of intergalactic or otherworldly realms. Rather, it pertains to the entropic and ever-changing geological processes of the earth.
The topics addressed in Vian’s work and practice are deeply personal to her history but at the same time universal in how they relate to what we as humans have faced in our world historically and today. The impact of loss and grief and rebirth, honoring those lost, and calling attention to the way we navigate violence, are present in her work in a way that can resonate with so many. For the artist conducting this interview, talking with Vian was an enriching experience that, like her work, was filled with tonally heavy topics, but always with growth, healing, and hope present.
From examining the primal nature of water to engaging mythology, animism, and Indigenous tradition and to speculating on new horizons, Andrea Carlson (Chicago, IL), Carolina Caycedo (Los Angeles, CA), Paul Maheke (England), Josèfa Ntjam (France), Claudia Peña Salinas (Brooklyn, NY), and Vian Sora (Louisville, KY) focus on the ways in which water is both a site of mourning and renewal.
One artist who will show preexisting work is Vian Sora, who was born in Baghdad but now lives in Louisville. Her paintings convey a fluid-like sense of motion between the figurative and the abstract. She’ll be presenting seven pieces, including the new painting River Bed, a response to last year’s deadly Kentucky tornadoes. “If you look at that painting, there are deflated bodies resting over branches,” Sora says. “I don’t want to say it’s about climate change, but it’s definitely a reaction to that.”
In a word, karma. Together, the 20 paintings on view feel heavy with the accumulation of history: karmic cycles of violence, pestilence, and death. (Sora, who was born in Baghdad, remained in the city through multiple wars, including the 2003 United States invasion, before emigrating.) And yet, the work also sings with the equally abiding presence of growth, rebirth, and new life.
“For years, I was just trying to turn my back to a little bit of the intensity of the experience of not only being an immigrant, but being an Iraq immigrant in America, but also being an American,” Sora said. “And I feel like I was really faced with that here, not in a bad way.”
In another corner, works focus on citizenship through the individual experience: Cuban native José Manuel Nápoles’s portrait of his fiance expresses a childlike exuberance that belies the agonizing displacement of emigration, while Iraqi-American Vian Sora paints silhouettes of human heads, their faces obscured in crimson fissures resembling desiccated deserts and violent blood splatters.
The work is undeniably chaotic, struggling to contain the exploded forms of color and texture and memory in a surge of energy and heat. And yet it also holds a persistent beauty, lines of elegance and grace that cut through the debris and roughness in lucid and reassuring curves. What is left is both a hope and a hollowness: streets clear of foreign tanks, skies absent of fighter jets, the silent stillness of a bombed-out city, this vast and sudden absence, this aching emptiness.
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.
In painter Vian Sora’s latest solo show, she illustrates a similarity between Berlin, Germany and Baghdad, Iraq. During a residency in Berlin last year, she had the chance to learn about the city’s rebirth after World War II. “As an Iraqi born artist,” she said, “my first-hand experience of war, political upheaval, migration and subsequent geographic and cultural displacement has deeply affected my life and my art. Since leaving Iraq, my works expressively address these issues.”
Artists’ creations can be inspired by many different experiences. Traveling to a foreign city, meeting a new person, undergoing illness or even facing political upheaval can provide ideas for new work. For Iraqi-American artist Vian Sora, inspiration comes from a mixed palette of life experiences. She was born and raised in Baghdad and grew up with certain expectations as the oldest daughter and granddaughter of a Middle Eastern family.
“It’s not a direct response to any one political or military event in Iraq,” said Abrams. “It is inspired by the experiences of Vian Sora, a person from Iraq who has come to the United States and made her home here as a visual artist. It’s a piece that takes the totality of now well over a decade-and-a-half of our shared experience — both Americans and people abroad — as we try to absorb this world history.”
There is an unexpected delicacy to Vian Sora’s exhibit Displaced Narratives (1619 Flux:Art + Activism). The Iraqi-born artist approaches the difficult subject of displacement with a thoughtfulness that makes her art accessible. There is also timelessness to this collection; found in the use of ancient Mesopotamian technique of engraving the canvas, the reference to ancient iconography, the use of gold thus referencing byzantine art, the more modern floating and abstracted figures and compositions, and the contemporary color pallet, which are combined beautifully to create a transcendent visual experience.