My Visual Resources: Place and Time between East and West
When the Chinese came to Baghdad in 1959 loaded with works of ivory, copper, silk, ceramics, and printmaking, I was still a student in the last year of my studies at the Institute of Fine Arts. The most wonderful Chinese antiques and masterpieces were organised and displayed in the main hall of the Institute so we, the students, could see them dozens of times every day.
What attracted our attention and made us marvel most was a beautiful masterpiece which consisted of fourteen ivory balls of varying sizes, all contained inside one ball, revolving smoothly around their pivot. Personally, however, I was drawn to the collection of water colours and Chinese ink prints. Most of these were by the internationally renowned artist Qi Baishi (1864-1954) whose work I closely followed in his hometown of Beijing.
Since that time, I became quite attached to traditional Chinese painting and realised that it differs in many aspects from European art. During the years I studied at The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Peking (1959-1963, at the time it was named Peking, later to be known as Beijing) when I began to practice Chinese technique of painting, I grew to love it even more. I was attracted to it simply because it seemed to have within it, all the essential elements of outstanding art, based on, and sustained by, the spirituality of the human being, as well as the elements of place and time. It is also wholly consistent with the oriental philosophy of life in its approach to nature and the universe, and in its sensitivity to visual elements in all their aspects.
The ink paintings of the artist Qi Baishi were my entry point into Chinese art, ancient and contemporary. This amazing artist was the reference for all the ink paintings I loved throughout those years. His works on paper obviously reflect the powerful strokes of the wide Chinese brush, mixed with the delicate lines of another brush. His paintings are also different from those of his contemporaries, and even from his ancestors, by means of the harmony of their colours. Especially so, when he uses black with its varying degrees, or in applying conflicting colours through the use of natural watercolors and black, always with a unique brushstroke eliminating the forms of flowers, birds and other natural shapes.
I also loved the art work of the great contemporary Chinese printmakers, particularly Li Hua (1907-1994), who was the first to teach me the principles of printmaking, in the practical sense, when he was a professor at the Central Academy in Beijing. I was influenced during the early years of my studies by his woodcuts because of the simplicity of the technique he used and for its profound and powerful ability in expressing the human condition. With his varying techniques, he outclassed tens, even hundreds, of the Chinese printmakers, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, bearing in mind the fact that his prints were all in black and white.
I was also greatly influenced by my famous teacher and instructor in art and life Huang Yu Yi (b. 1927) who supervised me during all the phases of my studies at the Academy, as a teacher, a supervisor and a friend. I learned much from his accuracy, dedication and patience throughout the period of my printmaking courses, in the application of traditional natural colours or watercolours which is an old Chinese technique requiring speed and attention throughout the printing process. The number of wooden clichés required for the production of one print may reach tens, even hundreds ranging from the smallest sizes to the largest.
Huang Yu Yi took good care of me. He had good relationships with Chinese artists, based in Hong Kong, who would provide him with the latest art books and magazines, which he would show me whenever he received them. Because of this, I became aware of the latest artistic trends of the West, which enabled me at the same time to draw comparisons between the arts of the East and West.
In the Summer of 1965, a couple of years after my return to Baghdad from China, I went with two of my brothers on a road trip. Over a period of around two months, we drove through twenty-four Arab and European countries. During this memorable trip, I came into direct contact with Western art. I visited the world's most famous museums such as the Museo del Prado, Louvre, British Museum, Rome's Museum of Contemporary Art and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I was amazed by the magnificent paintings of Velasquez, Goya, and El Greco, as well as those of Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner and other renowned artists.
I was also deeply impressed by the Expressionists and numerous other contemporary artists. However, I discovered over the time that I favoured some painters over others, who, as a result, have influenced my own art work. In particular, I should mention the Dutch painter, Rembrandt (1606-1669). I continued pursuing and studying his paintings and engravings deeply during those years. I would often visit a museum, especially the Louvre, only to view his works. Rembrandt's paintings helped me understand the sensitivity of light and shade in the painted or engraved image, and to learn to transfer and gradate with colour, from the lightest areas to the darkest.
As for the great British painter, JMW Turner (1775-1851), I spent much time contemplating the magnificent compositions he created with his abstracted landscapes which capture the essence of time and place consecutively.
In 1967, the Gulbenkian Foundation granted me a two-year fellowship for training in Gravura, Lisbon. At this time, the West was undergoing major and quite rapid social and political transformations, and art reflected many of these changes. There were many forms of modern art developing such as abstract art, Pop art, Earth art and performance art; all undergoing different phases of creative transformation, ranging from experimentation to maturity. Calligraphy was also a popular art form amongst the abstract painting techniques in Europe at the time. One of the most distinctive calligraphists was the French artist Georges Mathieu (b. 1921) who used both Latin and Eastern characters in a completely free way, creating a magical world from the movement of the brush and oil colours in paintings, which he executed in large dimensions. That artist was the first to influence me when I started investigating calligraphic elements in my art work. It was he who drew my attention to two important visual resources available to me: the Arabic and Chinese characters which had inspired me for many years. Thereafter, I began to insert Arabic characters into my abstract compositions and continued to do so up to the present. I use Arabic calligraphy in my art work, regardless of its linguistic connotation, to establish a kind of formal identification between nature and man; as well as between place and time. It is a sort of spiritual and mental exercise of the daily artistic creation of life.
Over the past seven years, and specifically after my Homeland, Iraq, was occupied in 2003, I started searching for new visual resources to enable me to express my physiological status and the extreme pain and agony of witnessing the torture of the people of my country, wishing and hoping for, liberation or salvation from the deterioration and disappearance of a veteran country, once the cradle of the world's most elegant civilisation, many centuries ago. In response to this, I sought shelter with poetry. It was poetry that put me on the right track when it made me reach harmony and balance between my existence as a human being and the basic mission of my life as an artist.
The great Arab poet Abul Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi (915-965 AD) was the first to aid me in tracing that track, with the opening lines of this nostalgic poem: How to entertain with no relatives, no homeland?
No drinking companion, no cup and no habitation.
This was the first visual image from which other works were to spring, both in painting and printmaking, later being extended to include poems of other great poets from different ages, like Ibn Zaydun (1003-1071 AD):
I remembered you at Al Zahra’ in longing
Where the horizon is cheerful and the land’s surface is clear.
And from Al-Jawahiri (1900-1999) I chose the opening of his poem:
I greet you from afar, O greet me back,
O blessed Tigris, river of gardens green*
This was followed by a poem by Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), ‘The Almond Blossom,’ Etel Adnan’s lament entitled ‘A Library Set on Fire,’ and May Muzaffar’s selected poems from her book, From That Distant Land.
In my latest project, I have dedicated my work to the poem of the Andalusian poet Ibn Zaydun, ‘ I Remembered You in Al Zahra’ With Longing,’ where eight paintings are placed together,( each )measuring two square metres, entitled Greetings to Ibn Zaydun. I tried to combine the supreme status of his beloved, Princess Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (1009-1078) who is described as: ‘Unique to her time in her amiability, prettiness and literary merits,’ within the scope of time and place (Andalusian Córdoba) where this romance took place. I used as few symbols as possible to represent the status of the harmony between poetry and music, between nature and the imprint of man , to reach a semi-abstract expression, so as not to move away from Ibn Zaydun’s description of nature’s aesthetics, which he creatively mixed with the agitated feelings of love. His description renders magnificent images from which I benefited in my artistic style where I have combined painting with printmaking.
My persistence in displaying written text (a verse of Ibn Zaydun’s poem) along with images of large size paintings in this collection, which delineate an imagined picture of the woman he loved, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, in addition to symbolic references to the Andalusian city of Córdoba, came to me spontaneously. Yet, it may also be the result of the visual influences I acquired from my daily observations of the masterpieces decorating Al-Hariri's Maqāmāt (prose with intervals of conspicuous rhetorical poetry), by the Iraqi painter and calligrapher Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti (thirteenth century CE). This book combines writing with paintings of highly accurate and creative depictions of nature and humanity in its different daily life situations as inspired from the written text of Al Hariri’s poetic prose.
* translated by Hussein Hadawi, excerpt cited in Venetia Porter, Word into Art (London: British Museum Press, 2006), p.8.