Arts and Culture

Louisville painter Vian Sora’s process is all about adding and subtracting. 

She first applies spray paint, acrylic or pigments to her canvas and, then, uses materials including Velcro and glass to strip color away.

“I was trying to kind of create these interesting textures and then I’m going to go and strip again and then I’m going to apply color,” she said.

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Vian Sora adds details to a new painting she’s creating during a residency in Berlin on Aug. 13, 2021.

Earlier that day, a sunny Friday in mid-August, Sora had swept up this debris from the floor of her temporary art studio located in an old, once-bombed-out building in the central Berlin neighborhood of Moabit. She doesn’t mind working amid the mess, but wanted to ensure we “didn’t have an accident here.”

Large paintings line the walls. One work, positioned on an easel in a corner near the entryway, is about as tall as Sora. It’s an explosion of green, yellow and red, and a closer inspection shows where Sora has removed some of the color, then added details, like a fine white line of paint.

“So it’s adding, subtracting, and it’s a metaphor also for basically the residues of destroyed cities.”

She came to Berlin, one of those cities shaped by destruction, in late July. She planned to stay several months for a residency, creating a new body of work to be exhibited next year.

“I chose the city because of the similar narrative to where I was born, which was Baghdad, Iraq,” Sora said. “[These are] cities that are informed by destruction and bombing, and what interests me is how the cities are coping with that and reaching a point of reset.” 

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Spray paint is a favorite medium of visual artist Vian Sora. She uses it to “map the work,” an early outline that she then paints over. But this time, she’s thinking of keeping some of it. “I feel it’s a true reflection of where I am, you know, physically in a city that basically tells its own narrative in graffiti,” she said. “So I feel like it’s kind of hypocritical if I don’t do that myself.”

Being here gives her an “eerie feeling.” 

This was the power center of the Nazi regime, and Berlin was nearly leveled by bombings during World War II

Sora was three when Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq. That changed everything for her family. Her mother Arab and her father Kurdish, Sora said they were targeted, and her childhood became scarred by constant surveillance and persecution. 

But it was also filled with art. Her parents were in the business, and she was always around artists.

“I just felt like that’s the only thing that makes sense to me,” Sora said of that time in her life.

Her art career began there, but by 2006, several years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the constant violence became too much. Sora left, eventually relocating to Louisville with her husband several years later. 

She hasn’t been back to Iraq since. 

“I still sadly don’t feel safe to do so,” she said.

Then, in 2019, Sora traveled to multiple cities, including Venice, Istanbul and Berlin, on a Great Meadows Foundation grant. On that trip, she met Lebanese artist Said Baalbaki, who lives and works in Berlin. 

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Artist Said Baalbaki in his Berlin studio on Aug. 13, 2021. Baalbaki does extensive research for his art projects and paintings, which dig into the unsettling history he’s witnessed.

He said the two of them connected, “not only artistic, also a human relationship.”

They spoke about growing up surrounded by war and loss. And how they try to decode or understand this history through their art. So Baalbaki invited Sora to work out of his Berlin studio. 

“He always supported his other artist friends and he kind of encouraged mutual conversation or a dialogue and going out and working together,” Sora said, translating for Baalbaki, who said it was easier to express this in Arabic than English. 

Baalbaki said they’ve been learning from each other during this time.

Nearing the end of her residency, a little earlier than originally planned, Sora said she’d been reflecting.

“The beautiful and the scary thing about an artist residency is basically facing your own demons as an artist, as a person, and in my case, as an immigrant.” 

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Another view of some of the paintings Sora has been working on during her time in Berlin. These are in the early stages and reflect some of her time walking along where the Berlin Wall used to be.

More than a third of Berlin’s population has a migration background, according to the latest numbers from the Berlin-Brandenburg Office of Statistics. Sora found herself gravitating toward those individuals, particularly people she could speak Arabic, English or Turkish with, and going to restaurants serving food that felt familiar. 

“I’m big on going out of my comfort zone, doing something different than what is my comfort level,” Sora said. “But I always been defaulting [during this residency] to going to places where I identify with… that just made me think of why I am choosing to do this versus other experiences.”

It made her think a lot about her own identity.

“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.” 

Sora said she appreciated the time to ruminate on these parts of herself, but she hadn’t initially expected that a trip to Germany would make her feel more connected with her Iraqi roots and her American self.

Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Painter Vian Sora poses in front of one of her new works, in its early stages, in a Berlin studio in the neighborhood of Moabit on Aug. 13, 2021.

Editor’s note: Kentucky-based Great Meadows Foundation, which rewarded travel grants to Vian Sora, also supports some of WFPL’s visual arts reporting.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.