On an arid June evening, lazy with the luxury of midsummer heat, for all the pavement celebration of its transformative kiss it’s hard nonetheless to put aside the misgiving that these days there’s something double-edged about the sun. The joy of a cloudless sky is overshadowed by the dread of what it might portend; a climate crisis that threatens to be irreversible, ending the days of the species which catalysed it.  

In the circumstances, The Poetics of Water, Castlefield Gallery’s current joint exhibition showcasing recent works by Jessica El Mal and Parham Ghalamdar, could hardly be more apposite. Part of the Hybrid Futures partnership which aims to normalise sustainability within the artistic process, the themes of both artists overlap, excavating the effects of capitalist models of continuous growth on the territories exploited in order to sate the thirst of shareholders.  

Jessica El Mal, Spring Rain. Photo by Kate Hardy.

Perhaps it was the contrast they offered to the heatwave streets outside, but, on first inspection, El Mal’s works seem the easier to respond to. Although the accompanying sound piece was lost in the hubbub of opening night approbation, the space set aside for her works offered a kind of contemplative oasis a world away from the perspiration and bustle of the Deansgate thoroughfares above. Adrift in its deeper blues, effectively set apart by the fabric screens fashioned from recycled materials that compose her cooling An Ocean In Every Drop, there was time afresh to take stock of what was important.  

Her Spring Rain cyanotypes, taking their name from the Arab Spring series of popular uprisings during the last decade, as well as a poem by Nizar Qabbani, use natural water to create the effect of an egoless monochromatic Jackson Pollock. Hung in groups, although each is superficially different, the cumulative effect is not unlike that of Warhol’s multiples, although El Mal’s gaze is turned outward, towards the greater-than-human rather than the larger-than-life. Of course, such comparisons are not without their irony given the frequency with which some Arab countries have found themselves the all-too-literal targets of American imperialism. Moreover, it would be a mistake to read the works solely through the sunglasses of a western perspective without also understanding that, in some Arab proverbs, rain is an allegory for salvation, its fall being a sign that the heavens are open so that God is more in reach of human prayers.  

Parham Ghalamdar, Untitled. Photo by Jules Lister

For me, Ghalamdar’s variations offered less that invited a deeper immersion. Drawing upon a Persian myth about the separation of water and soil and painting it into vivid life, his oils resemble the covers of a series of lost science fiction novels on which the type has yet to be overlaid. On each untitled work, the plant forms he depicts in undersea hues, at odds with their desert terrains, struggle tenaciously to put down roots through layers of ice and stone, reaching with their very tips for the continuously receding water table. With their otherworldly feel, they suggest the kind of planet the Earth might yet become. 

His ceramics, also untitled, have something of the quality of future archaeology. Fashioned in what appear to be traditional forms, their sand-like surfaces are choked in the glaze of colours as black as oil; a distillation of the long-term damage accrued from a short-term gain. 

Taken together, the works of the paired artists are a welcome draught of cool appraisal in the headlong rush to where we might be headed, although it’s El Mal’s that raise the gooseflesh. 

 By Desmond Bullen

Main image: Jessica El Mal, Spring Rain. Photo by Jules Lister.


The Poetics of Water is at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester until September 24, 2023. For more information, click here