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Fahd Burki: Uncertain Icons

Eternally dislocated, Burki’s uncertain icons acknowledge the enduring power and potential of the spiritual and the sacred, of myth, mysticism and magic.
By Murtaza Vali | Jul 2014

Fahd Burki’s art can leave one feeling uncertain. Though conceptually rigorous, formally exact and precisely executed, his paintings, drawings, and sculptures stubbornly insist on ambiguity. Whether narrative scene or flattened icon, his images often lack a background; without a specific cultural frame or spatial context to help locate them they hover in an atopia or, rather, a dystopia of infinite reference, outside of time and history. Archaic iconography and visions of the future comfortably coexist in these works and profound ‘dys-chrony’ pulses through them. Burki draws on sources that span various histories, geographies and cultures including the mythologies and iconographies of aboriginal and indigenous cultures, especially Native American, ukiyo-e prints and manga from Japan, Eastern European animation, science fiction, and other strands of contemporary popular culture. These disparate sources are moulded through theories, concepts, and terms borrowed from anthropology and archaeology, mythology and folklore, existentialism and psychoanalysis. Burki makes them entirely his own, creating images that exude formal conviction but resist easy reading.

Since 2009 Burki’s work has displayed a strong graphic quality, adopting the clear, precise syntax of signs and logos. A single image - flat, frontal, and floating against an even background - dominates each frame. Composed of sharply edged geometric forms and lines that mimic the cold neutrality of a digital image, each carefully calibrated work is precisely and somewhat perversely executed by hand. These works demonstrate a pronounced move towards abstraction, not just as a formal endpoint but as a process, a rigorous and reductive analytical method used to arrive at a stubbornly ambivalent image, one that probes precisely how little information is required for an image to remain legible. Rather than limiting meaning, this methodology paradoxically exaggerates the arbitrariness of the sign. Abstraction, both formal and semiotic, pushes the sign beyond the relation of signifier and signified, opening it up to hold and receive the intangible - those ideas, affects and experiences that might escape reason, language, and representation. Augur (2009) - a black, light bulb-like form, with three white apertures transforming it into a rudimentary face or a futuristic mask and its top half enclosed in a straight edged black shape resembling Darth Vader’s helmet - seems to acknowledge this in its prophetic title. While Burki’s single word titles suggest an interpretation - although highly abstracted Augur does resemble a soothsayer or shaman - how, or even whether, the image relates to its title is never entirely clear. Meaning emerges not as singular and bounded but as always plural, better understood as a series of tentative prognostications conjectured from signs and omens.

For Burki, an image is never an end in itself but always an illustration and these icons distill complex narratives into single images. Despite attempts to evacuate all vestiges of the illusory depth and narrative suggestion seen in earlier work, the barest outside reference and recognisable content still persists. Intimations of violence and sex, death and pleasure, the body and the bodily are introduced through the subtlest of formal tweaks. In Watcher (2010), a black circle, hovering above a many-sided vertical black shape floating in a field of dull blue, is transformed into an ominous omnipresent surveillance apparatus through the inclusion of a small, eye-like, white aperture at its centre. And in Lullaby (2010), a pimple-like taupe mound, a delicately drawn black tuft lining the swelling’s surface, tops a long spike. The delicious wisps resemble both hair and grass, and Burki’s amusing composite oscillates between body and landscape, suggesting a possible melding of the two, with the figure and ground of traditional painting united in the understated elegance of an abstracted icon.

Burki’s more recent work seems more intuitive. Neon colour and pattern gives them a hallucinatory quality and like much psychedelia they seem to teeter between being truly visionary and merely kitsch. In Urn (2012), a head, constructed out of variously shaded grey triangles and reminiscent of those found on Easter Island, sits at the centre of a vessel whose surface consists of interlocking triangles, each a neon rainbow of parallel lines. Black ovals distributed across this form disrupt the trippy Op-art pattern. While the translucent ink of the neon markers soaks back into the picture plane, the ovals assert its flat surface, and the sharp edges and vertices of the head protrude ever so slightly, like bas-relief, creating a subtle but sophisticated play of flatness and depth, of form and pattern, across the composition. In other works, diagrams - where line dominates shape - are constructed out of sets of white and coloured lines etched into or scraped out of a deep black ground. The dancing stick figure in Stars at Elbow and Foot (2012) resembles the famous geoglyphs carved into the Nazca Desert in Southern Peru, ancient markings thought to hold astrological, cosmic or otherworldly secrets. In Prayer for Circuits (2012) - another unlikely conflation of the archaic and the futuristic, magic and technology, and spirit and science - the syntax of circuit diagrams is used to create a blueprint for transcendence, although it remains unclear whether it would be driven by human, divine, or alien power.

The spectre of death seems to haunt Burki’s practice. Ghosts and apparitions, ruins and bones, and funerary rites and mourning rituals reappear across his oeuvre. Even the largely abstract Combustion 1 and 2 (2009) were inspired by Burki’s interest in cremation practices. [1] The former shows three subatomic particles or celestial bodies on the verge of collision, their movement suggested by smearing the outer edge of each black circle. The later consists of a stack of seven black discs - diminishing in size from bottom to top, so they appear to recede into the picture plane - the top edge of each smudged to suggest smoke or heat rising from smoldering embers. Burki makes the most of charcoal’s smudginess imbuing these minimal black forms - symbols of negation and annihilation - with the littlest bit of life. [2] In Burki’s view, the impulse to transcend the fact of death by imagining rebirth or an afterlife is universal and a major catalyst for the creation of the rich mythologies and iconographies he draws from and is drawn to. [3] While melancholy does permeate much of his work, it is the result not simply of mourning death but of lamenting a lost connection to ancient wisdom, a disruption caused by modernity. Eternally dislocated, Burki’s uncertain icons instead acknowledge the enduring power and potential of the spiritual and the sacred, of myth, mysticism and magic. They transform mythologies into futurologies, using images of and from the past to imagine, predict or, better still, prognosticate our coming days.


  1. Fahd Burki in conversation with the author, October 2013. Other related works include Untitled (2009), a charcoal drawing of what appears to be a bed of nails, and Each to their own (2009), a larger than life, jet black sarcophagus, standing upright, with a curious pipe jutting out from its base.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.

Murtaza Vali

Writer, art historian, curator. Lives between Sharjah, UAE, and Brooklyn, USA.

Abridged version of "Uncertain Icons," Fahd Burki: Works From 2003-2014 (Dubai: Grey Noise; Milan: Skira, 2014), pp. 174-181.

Fahd Burki

23 May - 14 September 2014

Project Room

Carré d'Art

Place de la Maison Carrée
Website Email

Previously shown at:

Unit 24 Alserkal Avenue
Street 8, Al Quoz 1,
Exit 43 SZR, Dubai

17 March - 30 April 2014

Fahd Burki was the recipient of the John Jones Art on Paper Award 2013

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