Nasiri Graphic Studio – Baghdad Notes and Memories

May Muzaffar,2013

To own a private graphic studio for printmaking in Baghdad, had been one of Rafa Nasiri's far fetched dreams since 1969; a dream that was only fulfilled after two decades. 

Following his return to Baghdad after spending nearly two years 1967-1969 of training at the Gravura in Lisbon, Rafa insisted on establishing a special graphic department in The Institute of Fine Arts – Baghdad (1974), where he used to teach and headed it. It was one step ahead before being able to establish his own private studio.

By the end of 1973, me and Rafa got married and settled in a small cottage, annex to his parent’s house at Al-Qadissya quarter in the west side of the river Tigris. It was a small space no more than 50sm which Rafa was preparing to be a private studio of his own where he can practice painting and printmaking. But we decided to adapt ourselves by living and working in this nice and cozy cottage. It contained one bed room, a small bath room and the rest was left to include a sitting corner surrounded by book shelves, and working space. Instead of having a proper kitchen, we had to satisfy ourselves with a small electric oven set on a long table at the end of the place beside the fridge. All this was designed to leave a space for our honored guest: a press that Rafa recently bought from his friend and colleague the artist Sami Haqqi, who himself brought it back with him from Germany. 

Naturally, Rafa had never been able to practice printmaking in this limited space due to many reasons least of all is that printmaking demands the use of acids, printing inks and gasoil for cleaning. The press, therefore, remained idle for several years before we moved to our new and large villa where Rafa arranged a special room to house it. The room, though in the second floor next to his spacious painting area, was still inside the house, and the same problem of the bad effects of the material remained. 

Rafa could not establish a proper graphic studio until 1987, the time when he freed himself from teaching and became a full time artist. He, by chance, came through a bungalow next to Orfali Art Gallery, a private art space that was established in 1984, and soon became a social and artistic hub of Baghdad. Despite the unfortunate war with Iran which lasted for eight years (1980-1988), Baghdad embraced many cultural activities, to mention only Baghdad International Art Exhibitions 1986 and 1988, where many leading artists from all over the world took part. More, since the economic boom in the mid 1970s, Iraq became an attractive center of many visitors and business men, Arabs and non Arabs.

The place, before maintaining, was completely neglected and ruined. It needed total restoring and re-establishing to become suitable for serving as a professional printmaking studio. The main interior space was dedicated to house two other presses, medium size and a small size one, in addition to the first press which he already owned. Special shelves and tables set up to contain other necessary equipments: basins, tools, printing inks, papers and etc. A limited space was left in the foreground to serve as a gallery where only paper works had been exhibited. 
Rafa scheduled his time to paint in the mornings at his home private studio, while devoting the afternoons to printmaking. For four years, Rafa led the most productive art life, free of any obligations other than fulfilling his thirst for creating and developing his artistic career both as a painter and printmaker.

At the beginning, Rafa was planning to dedicate the graphic studio to produce and show his own works only. But one year later, when the studio became one of the cultural landmarks of Baghdad, receiving daily Iraqis and non Iraqis visitors and art lovers, he decided to open this small exhibiting area to display selective art works mainly paper works. The only exception was the brilliant one-day show of Ismail Fattah, sculptor and painter, who showed a collection of large size paintings that were to be shown later in London. Being an extraordinary collection of large size expressionist images of nude figures entitled “Man and Woman”, Rafa thought that it may well be shown first in Baghdad before departing abroad. At the opening, visitors overwhelmed the place, making use of the large court shared with the neighboring Orfali gallery. It was such a memorable day.

The moment Rafa's studio was open, young artists, mainly his previous graphic students, offered their assistance, having been deprived of any further chance to practice and develop their skills as printmakers. Those artists who worked successively were: Samer Usama, the late young artist Ahmad Wahal, Hayan Abdul Jabbar and Khalid Wahal, besides Fairouz al Rubai'i, a young printmaker who had been trained in Istanbul. 

Rafa was able to produce quite a number of various etchings of limited editions as well as a number of monotypes. As the war with Iran was approaching to its end, Rafa devoted to his homeland a special portfolio of six images entitled "Homage to Baghdad". 
 Sadly, this was erupted by the disastrous 1991 war, followed by one of the most severest embargos imposed on Iraq by the international powers. Up to the last few hours before the air raids on Baghdad, Rafa insisted on working in the studio. When a cease fire ultimately declared following a 45 days of heavy bombardment, we went to investigate the place. The war left its mark on this peaceful corner, the x-stand where the collection of prints had been contained, was severely damaged by piercing bullets that hit the roof and rested in the heart of nearly twenty prints. 

By the end of 1991, we left Iraq, we left a beautiful villa, two professional studios and an unimaginable city called Baghdad. 

May Muzaffar
Amman, March, 2013