Artist's book containing a picture of a man standing next to a boat

Ali’s Boat: a story of migration

By Holly Wright, Project Assistant: The Asahi Shimbun Displays and Venetia Porter, Curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle East art

Publication date: 21 April 2017

Ali’s Boat by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji tells a personal story of exile and migration. Venetia Porter and Holly Wright discuss how this artwork became part of The Asahi Shimbun Display Moving stories: three journeys.

Ali's Boat: a story of migration

The Moving stories display tells the story of the long history of human migration through three very different elements; a projection of the million-year-old Happisburgh Footprints, the contemporary artist book and prints of Ali's Boat by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji (b. 1960) and the film Édouard Glissant: One World in Relation focusing on the philosophy of Édouard Glissant (1928–2011).

This display came about through a number of conversations with the Museum's Director, Hartwig Fischer, focusing on how the Museum could respond to contemporary events.

...the display poses questions about what connects these very different journeys. How can we learn from the long-term movements of people, often against all odds? It is through this study of people over time and across the globe, that we learn more about the impact of migration and people's ability to adapt to and shape a new world.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum

Artist's book containing pictures of a moored boat and a figure sailing a small boat near a rocky shore
Sadik Kwaish Alfraji (b. 1960), pages from Ali's Boat 1. Indian ink and charcoal on notebook paper, 2014. © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

HW: When the project team first discussed the theme of migration as a focus for this display, we wanted to select objects from across the Museum to represent elements of this vast experience. I spoke to you, Venetia, at that point to try and find objects that could talk about the emotional experience of migration. One of the objects selected by the Director was Ali's Boat an artist's book by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. When did you first encounter Sadik's work?

VP: We acquired Ali's Boat in 2015, I had heard about Sadik's work before, but I was mostly familiar with his videos and so when I found out that these were based on drawings and artist books I wanted to learn more. When I saw Ali's Boat I fell in love with it immediately, it felt like a really appropriate acquisition. All of Sadik's work is bound up in his own history, his relationship with his country, his past and his family – it's so personal. As well as being existential and universal. That is what is magical about this book. It is drawn in a childlike way, and emphasises the fragility of the subject. When we first spoke about the Moving stories display in February 2017, Sadik and I had actually just reconnected. He is included in the Ruya Foundation's Iraq Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale and I was writing an essay about the work he is presenting there. Then when the Director asked if we could display the work as a set of prints as well, I contacted Sadik and his gallery, Ayyam, directly to ask about their availability.

Ali's boat

HW: The entire display was produced in a very short time frame. It felt like such an urgent topic for us to discuss, and it is relevant in so many different ways. You discussed the universality of Sadik's approach to his art, is there a key element of the work that you wanted to highlight in this display?

VP: What is so poignant about this work is that it is a meditation on the theme of migration and exile... It's very sad actually. Sadik left Iraq in 1990 and returned for the first time in 2009. The book is inspired by a letter from his nephew Ali.

The morning I left Baghdad, he handed me a sealed envelope, which he asked me not to open till I returned home to the Netherlands.

I kept my promise, and I only opened his nicely decorated envelope when I reached home with my family. In it was a letter with the names of my children and his own name. In the middle was a drawing of a little canoe-like boat with one simple sentence "I wish this drawing takes me to you."

One simple, honest sentence and a boat, which held his dreams… As if he hoped that these words and that letter, if opened in the right place, at the right time, would perform a kind of magic, his own Abracadabra or Open Sesame, which would take him far away just the way he used to go on this boat in his dreams. His letter in a sealed envelope was his attempt to escape reality, with a boat and a few words, to a strange world of fantasy.

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

The text is written in the form of a letter to Ali: 'I was like you Ali…I had a boat… it was the colour of dreams and it was studded with lapis lazuli'. But he warns: 'Ali this boat will lead to delusion after delusion after darkness.'

Handwritten letter with Arabic writing and a picture of a boat
Ali’s note with the drawing of a boat that inspired his uncle, the artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, to create Ali’s Boat diary five years later. © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

HW: It's an incredibly moving art work, and we were able to compare it with two other journeys within the display; the Happisburgh footprints, and the film One World in Relation of the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant. Nick Ashton, Curator for Palaeolithic Collections, explained that 'Happisburgh tells of a metaphoric journey where people have crossed the natural boundaries of their known world. It is a story of survival in a harsh environment, but also one of opportunity.' Glissant too talks about these same experiences in One World in Relation, and it is not only the trauma of diaspora communities but also the transformations that occur that link all three together.

VP: Exactly. Sadik's story is so personal, it's about one person and yet it's also an allegory. It speaks to the footprints and the deep history of human movement, and that same hope.


The Asahi Shimbun Display Moving stories: three journeys was in Room 3 until 30 April 2017.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

The acquisition of Ali's Boat, the artist book and prints were supported by the Contemporary and Modern Middle Eastern Art acquisition group (CaMMEA) and the Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund.