Survival through Art and the Art of Survival

Rafa Nasiri,2007


Many speculate--from time to time—about the reason behind the distinction of modern Iraqi art and its outstanding position in the Arab World and the Middle East. A variety of explanations are cited as possible reasons for such distinction. As for me, I find such excellence explained and contained under three headings.
First, the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and the historical context in Iraq constitute a primary factor. The Iraqis people live side by side with historical monuments of striking beauty or with their traces, notwithstanding the dust of time. Iraqis see in front of their eyes such powerful art works wherever they go and whatever destination they take—north or south. As for the artists among them, endowed by refined sensibility and mind, the effect of these monuments touches them more and is necessarily reflected in their artistic and creative production somehow. Urban Iraqi centers, particularly Baghdad, have partaken—apart from the distinctive Mesopotamian civilizations—in the pronounced development of art, science, and literature during the Abbasid period. It was in Iraq where Islamic art took shape, and it was in Iraq where masterpieces of Islamic art were created. (Note 1) Living side by side with one’s artistic heritage encouraged Iraqi artists, consciously or unconsciously, to follow a path veering unambiguously towards freedom of expression and symbolization as they inherited them from their Sumerian ancestors. They have been particularly impacted by the Sumerian way of shaping the human body (terracotta statuettes served as a model). In addition the sense of the infinite release has been inherited by the Iraqi artist as exemplified in the abstraction of Islamic art with its arabesques and calligraphy, with its dedication to technical skills and devotion to artistic accomplishment.
The second factor in the distinctiveness of modern Iraqi art is the solid basis on which Iraqi artistic education was constructed--from its very beginning in the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1938 when Fa’iq Hasan (1914-1990) became the Chair of the Department of Plastic Art and Jawad Salim (1921-1961) became the Chair of the Department of Sculpture the following year. Rafa check date: How could Salim become a chair in 1939 when he was only 18 years old? Most Iraqi artists graduated from these two departments. Fa’iq Hasan had just come back from Paris after completing his studies at the Beaux Arts; Jawad Salim followed. (Note 2) Both of them were  possessed by dreams and armed by enthusiasm and worked with dedication to found a creative artistic movement in Baghdad. In addition, they had exceptional talent and solid training which were positively and deeply reflected--directly or indirectly--in the successive generations who studied with them or with their former students who became in turn art instructors. When the Department of Pottery and Ceramics was founded later in 1955-56 in the Institute of Fine Arts, the renowned British potter, Ian Auld, became the instructor (Note 3) and after him the Cypriot potter Valentinos (Ferial: check spelling) Karalambous (who was given later the Iraqi nationality) took over. The Department of Graphic Art was established in 1974 at the initiative of Rafa al-Nasiri who became its Chair and the instructor of a select group of Iraqi artists. This is as far as the Institute of Fine Arts is concerned. As for the Academy of Fine Art, (Rafa: What is the difference between the Institute and the Academy? FG: Add as a note) it was founded in 1961 with Khalid al-Jadir as its first Dean. Al-Jadir (1922-1988) was a renowned painter who received a doctorate in the History of Islamic Art from the Sorbonne. Thus the establishment of the Academy was also built on solid grounds. Advanced syllabi were drafted for its courses. It was joined by the best of instructors such as Fa’iq Hasan, Hafiz al-Durubi, Isma‘il al-Shaykhli, Kazim Haydar, and Isma‘il Fattah, among others. They have all died, but not before leaving their imprint on the artistic scene.
The third factor behind the distinctiveness of modern Iraqi art is the Iraqi character that longs to develop and progress, possessing a competitive trait and a willingness to confront challenges. What was taking place in the Arab World and internationally—new ideas, issues, and techniques—invigorated the Iraqi artists and challenged them, putting them in the crucible of experimentation and research. The prominent critic and writer, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1919-1994), used to say that one of the characteristic traits of the Iraqi artist is audacity in experimentation and freedom in expression. It seems that the seed of such inclinations continued to germinate along with new generations despite the bleak times that the Iraqis endured in general and Iraqi artists experienced in particular. The Iraqi artist’s desire to achieve excellence continued to mark artistic endeavors from the 1940s up to our present day. Jawad Salim was one of the early Arab artists who opened the door of reflection and inquiry into the question of heritage and modernity, and into the question of national specificity and identity. That was in a period when traditional techniques were hegemonic in an almost comprehensive way in the majority of Iraqi art studios. Jawad Salim was one of the first calling—through his artistic productions—to find the common threads of an Arab identity in art.


Generally speaking, migrating outside Iraq did not occur in the mind of Iraqis, let alone among Iraqi artists who, to the contrary, rushed back home as soon as they finished their academic studies in the West and in the East. The first generation of artists known as the pioneer generation in Iraq were those who flourished in the two decades, of the 1930s and 1940s. They took pride in establishing artistic associations and arranging for individual and collective exhibits such as “The Friends of Art Group” (1941), “The Pioneers’ Group” (1950), “The Baghdad Group for Modern Art” (1951), and “The Impressionist Group” (1953). Following the July 14, 1958 revolution in Iraq and starting with 1959 scholarships and fellowships to European and Asiatic countries were made available to qualified artists; graduates of the Institute of Fine Arts rushed to apply. After study abroad, they came back having completed their programmes and having acquired artistic training of various types. They constituted another generation of professional academic artists that had its distinct and influential imprint on Iraqi art. This generation commonly known as the generation of the 1960s is considered the genuine representative of modernity. It is the generation that experienced first hand the hot political issues of the day and sought to spread artistic culture in the belief that it is an essential part of the general cultural movement. Artistic ambitions of the generation of the 1960s were mixed with the expectation of spreading Iraqi artistic production beyond the borders of Iraq. Moreover, artists of this generation sought to bring together various branches of the artistic movement in Arab countries and opened the door for international participation in painting, graphics, and poster art. One of the most important groups that appeared then was “The Revivalist Group” (1965) and “The New Vision Group” (1969).
In the 1970s, the artistic movement in Iraq was known for the variety of its artistic activities, including individual and collective exhibits (painting, sculpture, graphics, ceramics, poster), and international participation (Graphic, Poster, and Sketch Biennales) as well as organizing Arab conferences and exhibits (Al-Wasiti Festival [1972], Arab Art Biennale [1974], Contemporary Arab Graphic Art Exhibit [1978]), and other international forums (Third World Poster Biennale [1979] and Third World Graphics Biennale [1980]). The decade of the 1970s was also known for publishing books on art and specialized journals on plastic arts (such as Funun ‘Arabiyya [Arab Arts], which was published in London, and Riwaq [Gallery], which was published in Baghdad). All these artistic and cultural activities contributed in integrating modernity and contemporaneity into Iraqi art.


Among the earliest artists who ended up residing in foreign countries were a distinguished lot who included Mahmud Sabri in Prague, Ardash Kakafian in Paris, Dia’ al-‘Azzawi in London, Fa’iq Hasan in Madrid, Mahdi Mutashshar in Arles, Su‘ad al-‘Attar in London, Salih al-Jumay‘i in San Francesco. These moves abroad started in the early 1970s.
When the Iraq-Iran war broke out in the early 1980s, a new wave of young artists migrated for various reasons—for some political but for most artistic reasons, particularly as the State stopped sending student missions abroad to study arts as it used to since the 1930s. The State then restricted student missions abroad and limited them exclusively to scientific fields. The talented among the graduates of the Institute of Fine Arts were the first to leave Iraq when they sensed that the future, which they were hoping for, was shut off. They were anxious to follow up on their educational projects. Not everyone who left Iraq was successful in accomplishing his/her ambition. But a select group of those who were distinguished students in Baghdad managed to demonstrate genuine presence in their new residential locations and stood out with their distinctive art. Among them are the following artists who have been able to carry on with Iraqi art.


‘Ammar Salman (born in 1958) went to study in Poland and finished his studies in the prestigious Warsaw Academy. He was one of the most distinguished students there. He left Poland for Sweden and has stayed there until today. ‘Ammar Salman was one of the most capable students in the Graphic Art Section at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He was originally a competent painter who had mastered artistic techniques and particularly in the field of sketching and use of watercolors. This provided him with a solid base and a smooth entry into innovative applications, expressing his artistic ideas particularly when carving on wood or zinc and printing on paper. (Note 4) In Warsaw, ‘Ammar’s distinction thrived, adding to his Iraqi training contemporary techniques and experience that are specific to Poland in contrast to other Socialist  countries of the time. ‘Ammar came to focus his ideas and condense his forms to a few lines and some human features, symbolizing the face, body parts, or bits and pieces from nature and the environment. All of that on relatively small paper spaces which he printed by carving on linoleum, making use of only two colors—black and white. One of the most striking examples of his style is his winning piece in the International Graphic Art Exhibit (in Berlin 1987). His piece was selected to be on the advertising  poster for the Exhibit. Prints of the poster were diffused in large numbers until it covered most of the walls of East Berlin of the time.


Mazhar Ahmad (born in 1958), a colleague of ‘Ammar Salman, followed the same trajectory and specialized in Graphic Art in the Institute  of Fine Arts of Baghdad and later in Warsaw Academy where he finished his studies before leaving for Sweden where he resided in Falun. There he participated in founding a workshop for etching and printing in addition to organizing a well-administered International Graphic Art Biennale. Mazhar Ahmad works on a universal human theme, but he does not forget his Oriental roots, be it in his use of symbols or treatment based on Oriental techniques. Occasionally, he makes use of photographic portraits carefully interwoven with the fabric of the canvas as was seen in his immense printed work which he exhibited at an Exhibit in 1999 (“50 Years of Iraqi Graphic Art”) in the gallery of Art House in Amman. Mazhar Ahmad devotes most of his time to producing prints made with material free from chemical elements that harm breathing. He has started spreading the use of such materials in his work and orienting others to their use, either through his own workshop in Falun or in workshops he runs here and there, the last of which took place in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. Mazhar Ahmad received several international prizes, perhaps the most prestigious being the First Prize of the International Biennale of Graphic Art (Norway 1995).


Hana’ Malallah (born in 1958) was a colleague of ‘Ammar Salman and Mazhar Ahmad in the section of Graphic Art in the Institute of Fine Art in Baghdad. She was also a brilliant student technically and stylistically. She was among the best students in her specialty who competed fiercely with her peers. After graduation, she moved to the Academy of Fine Arts and continued her postgraduate studies, receiving a doctorate degree in Aesthetics. She continued to live in Baghdad under awful living and security conditions until 2007, when she decided to leave and accept a fellowship from al-Mansuriyya Institute for Culture and Arts (Rafa: what is this Insitute? We need to add an endnote explaining what it is) through which she could live and work in the International Cité des Arts in Paris. She was the last of the younger generation of Iraqi artists who left Iraq, as “life became unsafe in the homeland”, to cite her own words. Hana’ Malallah is one of the most important painters in Iraq who appeared in the last quarter of the twentieth century—and they are few anyhow. She is one of the most distinguished artists in the generation of the 1980s and is different from her peers theoretically and practically. The difference lies in her developed understanding of art and its role in the fabric of contemporary society. She masters techniques admirably, having been trained in her undergraduate study in the art of graphics and printing. Hana’ Malallah selects from the Iraqi heritage--and in particular Sumerian art—expressive and decorative shapes and motifs, adding to them a different spirit and a different significance, embodying the surface of her contemporary painting. She had several individual exhibits in 2007 in Baghdad, Amman, and Bahrain, and the latest one was in London where she lives now.


Karim Risan (born in 1960) is another talented painter who studied with Fa’iq Hasan and some of the best professors associated with him in the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He, like his colleagues, had to do his military service. All of them participated in the Iraq-Iran war following their graduation from the Institute or the Academy. They were strong men who were able to survive intellectually and spiritually through their continuous practice of painting. They combined the ambience of war and art together. Especially Karim Risan stood out among his peers for his ability to capture visually such a mixed ambience and its impact on people in general and on artists in particular. He used motifs and shapes from past legacies, from history, and from the environment without directly using human figures. From the beginning he was a painter drawn to abstract art. And it is a point in his favor as he developed painterly experience over the years in a smooth and consistent way, all along the period in which he lived and worked in Baghdad. He  produced dozens of oil tableaux and paintings on paper which he exhibited in Baghdad, Amman, Manama, and other Arab capitals. It is worth noting that those young artists could not leave Iraq until the mid 1990s, and the Jordanian capital Amman was their first station/stop over. However, when they left Iraq they came out with accomplished artistic personalities and such clear personal visions as to how an artist coming from Iraq should be. The first European stop over for Risan was in London in 2003. He went there for a short visit and spent several days there in which he was able to visit London museums and see top-ranking artistic work in an immediate way for the first time. Later in 2003, he went to Paris where he worked for three months with his friend the painter Nizar Yahya in the International Cité des Arts. In its workshop, he produced a number of artistic notebooks which he referred to as “Baghdad Fires”. In them he depicted the state of occupied Baghdad, recalling every painful details and scenes. When he left Paris, he went back to Baghdad. Later on, he left Baghdad for as a result of unexpected problems and threats that forced him to leave the country in early 2007; so he moved to Damascus where he lives now, devoting his time to painting.


Nizar Yahya (born in 1963) studied painting in the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He was drafted in the military service in 1986 where he spent tense moments in the Iraq-Iran war front and which he recorded in his notebooks in drawings and texts. He was unique among his colleagues at the Academy in practicing carving and printing beyond the required assignments. This extra curricular involvement was made possible through his friendship with students in the Graphic Art Section in the Institute of Fine Arts—among whom was Nadim Muhsin who would become his colleague and friend in the various artistic stages that followed up till today. Nizar Yahya was known for his manual competence and professionalism which he acquired through his work at one point as a smith. Thus he joined the skills of smithery with meticulous artistic application. He also joined intellectual reflection with serious aesthetic inquiry which engaged him whenever he was involved in an exhibit or in a new artistic stage—and he passed through many of these in Baghdad, Amman, and Qatar. Amman was the first capital Nizar Hamdan saw besides Baghdad. He used to frequent it in short visits at times and in longer ones at other times, until he ended up settling there in 1998. When he had the opportunity, he went to Paris to live and work in the International Cité des Arts through a fellowship from the Institute of Al-Mansuriyya for Culture and Arts with his friend Karim Risan in 2003. Nizar Yahya went through a rare artistic experience in the International Cité des Arts which left its imprint on his future artistic quest and opened wider horizons for him, putting him in the first rank of the 1980s painters of Iraq and possibly of the Arab World. (Note 5) Presently, the works of Nizar Yahya--which include painting, sculpture, and printing--are captivating with their colours, concepts, and construction. His last exhibit in Amman entitled “The Land of the Birds” (2007) is a witness to his brilliance. Nizar Yahya is getting ready—after life in Amman became difficult—to enter into another unknown adventure, that might take him towards a new displacement in North America, as many of his peers who were highly competent have done.

Ghassan Gha’ib (born in 1964) was an outstanding student in the Institute of Fine Arts of Baghdad in the mid 1980s until he finished his studies at the Academy and graduated in 1997Check date with Rafa. It is probably 1987 since he was an outstanding student in the mid 80s. In collective exhibits, he was associated with a distinctive contemporary style in painting or more precisely with an abstract mode of work which depended on immense stretches of colour and rapid brush strokes drenched in black. His paintings were beautiful and truly arresting, particularly those which he exhibited in Baghdad’s First International Festival of Arts in 1986 and in Baghdad’s Second International Festival of Arts in 1988, organized under the heading of “Art for Humanity.” Ghassan Gha’ib had the fortune of being a student in the Institute of Fine Arts in the early 1980s where he was exposed to the most important works of Iraqi art when the Institute was at its best. He studied with professors who were some of the best Iraqi artists such as Shakir Hasan al-Sa‘id and his colleagues. Ghassan Gha’ib left Iraq in the mid 1990s because of the oppressing embargo, moving between Qatar and Jordan. He settled in Jordan eventually, producing some of his best artistic works. He participated in individual and collective exhibits in various Arab countries. He also profited from Al-Mansuriyya Institute fellowship and thus could live and work in the International Cité des Arts in Paris for three months in 2004. This short period had its great influence on Ghassan Gha’ib’s artistic endeavors as he came to know concepts of Western art and came to see original Western artistic works for the first time. All this was enough to trigger in him again his early impulse for experimentation and innovation. No sooner did he come back to Amman--staying in it for a while--than he was taken by the idea of migration. He, with his family, left Amman for good and migrated to Sweden.


Nadim Muhsin Kufi (born in 1962) studied engraving and graphics at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1980-1985. He studied sculpture in the Academy of Fine Arts in 1986-1990, then he studied design in Hogeschool voor de Kunsten of Utrecht in Holland, in 1996-2001. Thus he has knowledge of all the forms of artistic expression and their techniques. Nadim Kufi started his professional career with his first exhibit in 1992 in the French Cultural Center in Amman. The exhibit was an important triggering point in his trajectory. In it he presented works based on ready-made or hand-made raw material. This included paper used brilliantly from the viewpoint of compositional construction and harmony of colour--with arresting expressiveness and intellectual dimension. Nadim Kufi was one of the earliest artists to settle in Amman. But his great ambition led him to go further. He emigrated with his small family to Holland where he started studying anew. His concerns were developed and his ideas became more sophisticated, branching out to new horizons which included an electronic journal named Dafatir (Notebooks) Rafa: Is it daftar (in the singualr) or dafatir (in the plural)? in which he put the essentials of his experience in graphic design. (Note 6) Through his journal, he disseminated new ideas which he acquired from his stay in Europe. Most of the new works of Nadim Kufi are built on a fundamental concept around which the exhibit revolves. He has exhibited much of his work in Arab countries in the last few years and he met with great success and interest.


Himat Muhammad ‘Ali (born in 1960) came from Kirkuk to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war to join the military. He was not an art student though he has assimilated art techniques thoroughly as he was an avid observant of his older brother, Midhat Muhammad ‘Ali who had been a student of engraving and printing (Graphic Art) in the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in the mid 1970s. Following his brother’s footsteps, he established during this period good professional and personal relations with a group of young artists and some art professors—among whom was the great Iraqi artist Shakir Hasan Al-Sa‘id. Again following his brother’s path, he traveled East—Japan to be precise—where he explored Japanese art and made friends with Japanese painters and poets. When Himat ‘Ali was in Paris, he did likewise: He established friendships with French literati such as the novelist Michel Butor (1926- )and the poet André Velter (1945- ) and he worked with them on limited edition of artist’s books. He also worked with the great Arab poet Adonis on artistic works which have been exhibited in different Arab countries, including Bahrain and Jordan. The most recent exhibit of Himat ‘Ali was in Amman under the heading “Fleurs du Ciel” (Flowers of the Sky), which was intended to be transferred later on to Japan. Himat ‘Ali devoted most of the tableaux of his exhibit to his Japanese poet and friend, the late Gotaro Tsunezumi. This beautiful exhibit sums up the artistic and professional contribution of Himat ‘Ali par excellence. (Note 7) 


The above sample of artists who managed to survive the upheavals of their country and continue to paint and make a difference in the art world present a bold paradigm. With roots and early training in Iraq, these young Iraqi artists were shaped by their Iraqi experience, holding on not only to techniques they learned but also remaining faithful to the ideals of art. Wherever they go they work seriously and dynamically, conscious of the necessity of standing upright and not bending to the Other and melting away in a foreign culture. They learn from their foreign experience without giving up their own legacy. They demonstrate to the world that creativity alone is the matrix of life and the essence of humanity, and that their homeland is alive within them. They carve the name of Iraq on the world map of art with dedication and conviction.


1. See Oleg Grabar. The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
2. Jawad Salim was studying in France when World War II broke out. He left for Italy, then he was called back to Baghdad. He resumed his studies in Britain in 1946 when World War II was over.
3. In an obituary of Ian Auld (1926-2000), Emmanuel Cooper wrote: “Educationist, potter, and collector”, Auld studied at Brighton School of Art and at the Slade School of Art in London. He became interested later in clay and ceramics. He moved to Baghdad in 1954 where he taught for three years and “set up a ceramics department, developing a particularly good relationship with the Iraqi painters. The first-hand experience of a very different culture made a lasting impression and the pioneering department successfully sought to blend art and craft” (The [London] Independent, February 29, 2000).
4. The examination of students specializing in Graphic in the Institute of Fine Arts took place in the third year of their study (which lasted five years), provided they distinguished themselves in the applied side. The selected students were required to demonstrate a high degree of competence in painting and sketching.
5. It is worth noting that Paris was the first European city visited by Nizar Yahya and Karim Risan, In it they saw for the first time original masterpieces of art.
6. See the web site of the journal: (May: I couldn’t find this web on the internet—neither under daftar nor under dafatir. Please check and let me know)
7. Himat ‘Ali writes about his affinity with the Japanese poet Gotaro Tsunezumi (born in 1937, he was the chief editor of a literary magazine who became friends with writers and collaborated with artists): “Upon my return to Paris. I received a letter [from Gotaro Tsunezumi] which contained four poems—unveiling four flowers—entitled ‘Flowers of the Sky’. Also included in the letter were photos of the flowers with captions dedicated to each of them. That day I understood the meaning concealed in the folds of each flower . . . . I buckled down to the task of preparing an exhibit which took place in 2002 (his hand-written poems and my paintings inspired by them)”. See