Written by Fadia Antar

Maliheh Afnan was born in Haifa, Palestine, in 1935, to a Persian family who fled Iran persecuted because of their Baha’i faith. In 1949, a year after the Nakba (the Zionists deadly attacks on Palestinians in 1948), and after witnessing the second world war and the air raids on Haifa, the Afnans were forced to leave and settle in Beirut. There, Maliheh Afnan attended high school then received her BA in Sociology and Psychology at the American University of Beirut, in 1955. She moved to Washington DC, USA, in 1956 and graduated with an MA in Fine Arts from the Corcoran School of Art in 1962. Since, she had a life of perpetual displacements, moving to Kuwait from 1963 to 66 then to Beirut until 1974. Afnan left Beirut to Paris and finally settled in London in 1997.

Since childhood and before she could read or write, the forms of letters and words fascinate Afnan[1]: in Haifa, she collected official papers and bills written in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. This fascination, was not only reflected in her early art school projects when she started incorporating letters, words, and fragments of words on patches of paint, but also carried on until later in her career. Afnan soon developed her own style of “writing her paintings” as she would claim, but the flame that nourished her practice was the discovery of the art of Mark Tobey(1890- 1976), an American artist who legitimized and introduced the use of abstract calligraphy and scripts into modern art. Afnan got acquainted with his art at the Philips Collection, Washington DC, and later on, when she visited his studio in Switzerland. Mark Tobey eventually became her mentor and facilitated her first solo exhibition at the Galerie Claire Brambach, in Basel, Switzerland, in 1971.

The act of writing in itself was a performance where Afnan revived the past and transposed it to the present. All her lines of writings were reminiscences of old calligraphy and ancient scripts of the past Middle Eastern civilizations she originated from. The ancient cuneiform scripts (one of the earliest systems of writing, invented by Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia) stayed a mystery and a source of inspiration for the artist: she contemplated these scripts not only as remains from an old civilization but also as time links between the past and the present. Furthermore, Afnan considered the effect of time on those scripts, and that led her to give an aged appearance to her contemporary works: she used earthy and rusty colors smudging her invented words with her fingers, scratching them on the surface of her paint, and stressing on the burnt rust, and decay effect. In her plaster reliefs works, she carved her scripts meticulously on plasticine, cast them with plaster, and finally painted the plaster with dark and earthy tones[2]. Her works appeared like a manifestation of excavated artifacts emerging from ancient civilizations. Additionally, Afnan’s lines of words did not bear any semantic references, nor did they refer to any meaning: they were just lines that filled the space and drew a meticulous path through the painting, rather a topography tool than a medium of communication[3].

Afnan’s time travels are tightly connected to her space navigations: her works are blurred visions of the lands, places, homes she lived in, and people she encountered. Her oeuvre is about memory. The artist transcribed her life of perpetual displacements into traces sealed on paper. Rooted in personal reminiscence, the themes she addressed advance from the intimate realms to the collective ones; by bringing in her mother tongues and transcribing them into scripts and patterns, she gave them a global and timeless identity. Her landscapes, as well, rendered in monochrome tones, transpierced by accumulations of lines and textures, depositing layer over another, are more a gestural manifestation than a geographic location, they represent the earth rather than the place.

Afnan’s work progressed in a spiral approach through the artist visiting and revisiting constantly and simultaneously sometimes, the five subjects she has worked on Ecritures or Traces (80s-90s), Paysages or Places (80s-90s), Personages or Faces (90s), Reliefs and Objects (90s-2000), and Veiled (2000-2009).

In her series of portraits drawings called Personages, she did not use any models to portray. The artist started with an ink line on paper, and the line formed itself into a figure emerging from memories and imagination[4]. The result would surprise the artist as if those ghostly portraits were revelations from the past. Each figure bears its unknown history and enigma. In her work Witness (1991) from the series Personages, she portrays the ravages of time and hardships on a person, the kind of sufferings humans should not witness.

Around the 2000s, Maliheh experimented with gauze, painting it in black or brown and incorporating it to her artwork[5]. The series Veiled was conceived to divert the Western world’s gaze from the Muslim women’s veil, by proposing different kinds of cover-ups that every human shields oneself behind. Afnan removed the veil from the head and placed it over truths, emotions, feelings, and threats. The titles she has chosen for her works were Veiled Melancholia, Veiled Emotion, Veiled Confrontation, Veiled Strategy.

For Afnan, who welcomed the effect of chance, and tackled her work without premeditated plans, the media of paper responded better to her ends[6]. Each sheet of paper has its distinctive potential of absorption, rigidity, or malleability calling on the artist to yield a different texture, transparency, or colorfastness. Performative in its essence, the art of Afnan took into account the materiality of the paper. She used ink, pen and pencils, watercolors, and oil pastels, always in intimate scales; her compositions were spontaneous but tidy.

Preferring reduction and subtlety to fanfare, Maliheh Afnan's work invades the viewer with its elegance. She was able, grounded in her precise historical references, to transcend any national affiliation and deploy herself as an international and contemporary artist.

Maliheh Afnan passed away in London in 2016.

[1] Projects, Rose Issa. “Maliheh Afnan: Traces, Faces & Places.” Vimeo, February 14, 2014. https://vimeo.com/86708890.

[2] Projects, Rose Issa. “Maliheh Afnan: Traces, Faces & Places.” Vimeo, February 14, 2014.https://vimeo.com/86708890.

[3] Maarouf, Mazen. “مليحة أفنان .” Dar Al Saqi. دار الساقي دار نشر بيروت لبنان, November 8, 2010. https://www.daralsaqi.com/content/جريدة-النهار-مليحة-أفنان-الخط-يقودني-إلى-حياة-يرسمها-بنفسه-مازن-معروف.

[4] Projects, Rose Issa. “Maliheh Afnan: Traces, Faces & Places.” Vimeo, February 14, 2014. https://vimeo.com/86708890.

[5] Mirrors to Windows: Maliheh AfnanYouTube. Susan Steinberg, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nITNwGECDtY.

[6] Becker Luz, John Berger, Rose Issa, Maliheh Afnan, and Keith Patrick. Maliheh Afnan: Traces, Faces and Places. London: SAQI Books in association with Beyond Art Production, 2010.


Becker Luz, John Berger, Rose Issa, Maliheh Afnan, and Keith Patrick. Maliheh Afnan: Traces, Faces and Places. London: SAQI Books in association with Beyond Art Production, 2010.

United Kingdom: Rose Issa Projects, 2014. March 07, 2014. Accessed October 02, 2017.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvLK2tdp_qc   

Steinberg, Susan. Documentary. 2012. August 22, 2012. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nITNwGECDtY      

Afnan, Maliheh, and Luigi Fassi. Personnages: Maliheh Afnan. Cagliari: Arkadia, 2019.

Maarouf, Mazen. “مليحة أفنان .” Dar Al Saqi. دار الساقي دار نشر بيروت لبنان, November 8, 2010. https://www.daralsaqi.com/content/جريدة-النهار-مليحة-أفنان-الخط-يقودني-إلى-حياة-يرسمها-بنفسه-مازن-معروف.                    

Projects, Rose Issa. “Maliheh Afnan: Traces, Faces & Places.” Vimeo, February 14, 2014. https://vimeo.com/86708890.

Mirrors to Windows: Maliheh Afnan. YouTube. Susan Steinberg, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nITNwGECDtY.