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Over the last decade, Iraq’s rich history of art has been sidelined and overshadowed by the focus on politics, war and destruction. However, with powerful figureheads such as Zaha Hadid and Nada Shabout championing the art from their native country, Iraq is slowly regaining its prime position in the international art scene, further proving that with time, the artistic discussion of a country can be replaced by the politics and economic issues.
It is vital to add that without the incredible modern artists of Iraq, there would be no art scene to speak of, least of all write about. Artists such as Jewad Selim (1919-1961), Mohamed Ghani Hikmat (1929-2011), Kadhim Hayder (1932-1985), Shakir Hassan Al-Said (1925-2004), Faik Hassan (1914-1992) and Ismail Fattah (1934-2004) were once as famous as the Secessionist artists in Europe. There were two main art groups in the 1950s, the Pioneers, of which Faik Hassan was the leader, and the Impressionists Group, co-founded by Hafez al-Droubi (1914-1991). With their distinctive knowledge of international art and their abilities individually and as a group, they heralded a new perspective on ‘Arab art’, one that, arguably, has been lost in the 21st century. Had these artists not developed such a unique movement through their work, many of the living artists listed below would not have forged their own identities in their artwork.
The most recognized and celebrated living Iraqi artist is unquestionably Dia Azzawi. He first came to London in 1976, where he has remained and continued to develop his unique style that is instantly identifiable as his own. Azzawi was around to witness the avant-garde artistic community in Iraq crumble. In 1969, he wrote and published the manifesto Towards a New Vision co-signed by Ismail Fattah and other artists and in the early 1970s, before moving to the UK. At the instigation of his friend Jamil Hamoudi (1924-2003), he set up the One Dimension Group with fellow artists, including Shakir Hassan Al-Said. Azzawi seeks inspiration from numerous sources including ancient Sumerian sculpture, archaeology (the subject in which he graduated), Picasso, and the political tension of the Middle East. One of his most famous works is Sabra and Chatila Massacre (1982-1983) noted for its similarity to the infamous Guernica. His response to the carnage in the refugee camps in Beirut leaves a distinct quality that is hard to match. On the huge three-meter long canvas, there is no heroism and no hope, only bloated, distorted and grotesque figures. Simply put, Azzawi’s ability to completely open the power of cruel conflicts exudes itself on his most extraordinary painting. In 2012, this was recognized by Tate Modern, London, and Sabra and Chatila Massacre was acquired and displayed alongside a series of works by American artist Leon Golub.
For more than 20 years, Hanaa Malallah studied with the celebrated artist Shakir Hassan Al-Said. Now based in London, Malallah continues to be inspired by the style and imagery of ancient Mesopotamia. Over the years, with the ever-changing dynamic of her native Iraq, Malallah has developed her subject matter, observing deconstruction as well as reconstruction. One of Iraq’s leading contemporary female artists, the global art world has been slow on picking up on her many talents. After experiencing three decades of war, Malallah has established her visual character through embroidery and mixed-media reflections on her past. To add to Malallah’s artistic charisma, she owns a unique signature: a string of numbers representing the letters of her name.
One of the most internationally recognized contemporary Iraqi artists, Adel Abidin began his artistic life as a painter before moving on to what he is now known for, his video work. He originally held the belief that the concept behind the work should dictate the choice of medium, until he found he needed a new argument for his artistic output. He needed mobility and physical space – hence the shift to video and installation. Abidin examines issues of culture, displacement and alienation – all the result of being a migrant (he lives in Finland now). By using humor and irony to articulate cultural alienation and the marginalization that he has felt, Abidin has seen his work thrown into the limelight of the international contemporary art scene including exhibitions with Hauser & Wirth, London. In 2011, Abidin was also chosen to represent Iraq at the Venice Biennale, alongside Walid Siti.
London-based, Iraqi-born photographer Al-Ani uses her work to show her audience what they could have otherwise missed. Jananne Al-Ani frequently uses herself and her family in her video work and photography. In one of her most symbolic works, Untitled 1 and Untitled II (both 1996), we see a composition of veiled and unveiled figures, often the fabric on the heads not corresponding to the bottom half of the bodies of her three sisters and mother. Battling her own identity issues, being from a mixed ethnic parentage, the questions of sexuality, orientalism and exoticism radiate from these black and white autobiographical works. Al-Ani has been the recipient of many awards, most recently the Abraaj Capital Art Prize (2011) for her significantly exhibited work Shadow Sites II.
Kurdish artist Walid Siti uses his conceptual work to refer back to revered symbols and shapes such as the cubic form of the Kaaba in Mecca and the mountainous peaks of Kurdistan. Evoking mystical significance, his work has allowed viewers to reimagine Siti’s home and how he remembers where he grew up. Most recently, Siti had a solo exhibition in Istanbul based on his own experiences and those of others who risked their lives crossing hazardous terrain to find a better life. Following on from his preoccupation with changing landscapes, Siti developed a series of works using a variety of media to explore the stunning and yet violent aerial shots of militarized borders. Siti also took part in the 2011 Venice Biennale, being chosen as one of the artists to represent Iraq for the first time in 34 years, alongside Adel Abidin. In March 2014, Siti will be exhibiting simultaneously in XVA Gallery in Dubai, and Taymour Grahne Gallery in New York.
Born in Baghdad and educated in Europe, Hayv Kahraman’s focus on the aesthetics of beauty have thrown her into the limelight of contemporary art. By using the conventions of formal attractiveness, Kahraman negates the visual her audience sees, and instead her canvases deliver messages about current issues. Kahraman’s work embodies her personal nomadic life mediating between Islamic art, Italian renaissance styles and even Japanese art. Kahraman’s native Iraq has always impacted her work: ‘I have of necessity inherited a host of issues that find expression in my work’, she says. The miniature-style oriental women that Kahraman portrays in her work are captured in the most unlikely of situations. Although they seem seductive from afar, up close it is clear that the figures are bearing heavy stresses on their lithe shoulders. In March 2014, Thirdline Gallery will be showcasing Kahraman with a solo presentation of her work during Art Dubai.
Arguably the most distinguished artist-calligrapher, Hassan Massoudy tends to depict his words and letters in poetic form, with long, large blocks of luminous color. Having been described as ‘breathing new life into an ancient tradition’, Massoudy has become known for producing his expressive calligraphic works live to music. Born in Najaf, Massoudy made the decision to move to Baghdad in 1961 to train as an apprentice calligrapher before moving to Paris in 1969, where he still resides today. Although in keeping with the classical practices of Arabic calligraphy, it is with his creative and inventive technique that Massoudy has garnered so many fans, followers, and even imitators.
Part of the new generation of Iraqi artists, Wafaa Bilal was arrested on the Kuwaiti border in 1991 after escaping Iraq and detained in a Bedouin camp for 42 days. He was then transferred by the US military to the infamous Rafha refugee camp established on the border of Iraq and Saudi Arabia after the end of the Gulf War. Bilal remained in the camp for two years, until 1993, when he was one of the first Iraqis to leave the camp. His work has always aimed to engage the audience. While he was studying in New Mexico, he focused on starting an artistic dialogue by getting people out of their comfort zones and producing work that was, at times, confrontational. Feeling that his work was alienating people, Bilal soon changed his approach. Though still focusing on politics, he now uses the internet to reach beyond the gallery to a wider public with his use of photography, video and computer games. His interactive approach to art has led to dynamic works such as Virtual Jihadi (2008), an online game in which players could fight stereotypical Iraqi foes and reach the ultimate goal: killing Saddam Hussein. The most infamous of his works, of course, is when Bilal temporarily implanted a camera in the back of his head for the work 3rdi (2010-2011).
In his multimedia work, self-taught artist Mohammed Al-Shammerey draws on his personal experience of living in Iraq through repeated wars. With his cynicism towards conspiracy theories and narrative fiction, Al-Shammerey’s work reflects his identity as an outsider from an unsettled country. He finds simple, everyday objects and sustains them in his paintings by deliberately stripping them of their point of view. Al-Shammerey has often fed his creative process with the complex feelings he has towards the effects of globalization. Although one of the lesser known artists on this list, Al-Shammerey’s modesty in describing his work and powerful messages he projects has made his honesty both remarkably endearing and agonizing simultaneously.
After leaving war-torn Iraq and suffering familial loss, her work came to symbolize the profound cultural and personal cost of living in Iraq. Suad Al-Attar was the first female artist to have a solo show in Baghdad and her indomitable style has never waned. As with a number of artists from Iraq, Al-Attar’s work displays issues of longing for her country as well as the understanding of her luck to have escaped the destruction. Her early work held dream-like features often portraying figures from ancient poetry or from stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Although she is painting less nowadays, Al-Attar’s intense surreal work has will never be overshadowed and is held in collections across the world.