Get to Know Six Key Iraqi Paintings and the Modern Masters who created them

Christie’s Middle East’s forthcoming sale will feature a dozen Iraqi works from the Fadhil Chalabi Collection

A View of Palm Trees in Taarimiyah Baghdad by Kadhim Haider

by Maán Jalal

Culture 14 March 2018

A dozen influential artworks by Iraq’s modern masters will be included in Christie’s Middle East’s upcoming sale on 22 March in Dubai, UAE. The works are from the collection of Iraqi economist Fadhil Chalabi whose passion for works by artists from his homeland, have seen him amass an impressive collection featuring many established and emerging artists.

The majority of the 12 artworks from the Chalabi Collection offered by Christie’s, reveal the depth and sophistication of Iraq’s artistic revolution throughout key moments in the country’s history. Most of the works were initially acquired directly from the artists themselves, a testimony to the longstanding relationships that Chalabi maintained with many of these artists.

We decided to look through the exciting pieces that will be on view at Christie’s Dubai in Jumeirah Emirates Towers from 19 March and choose six of our favourite so you can learn more about these particular paintings and the Iraqi masters who painted them.

Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925-2004)

Painter, sculptor and writer, Shakir Hassan Al Said is considered one of Iraq’s most innovative and influential artists.

One of the two Untitled pieces (pictured above) which will be on show, displays the abstract compositions that best demonstrate Al Said’s process and style. Aesthetically, Al Said’s work sits somewhere between visual reality and surrealism. This isn’t surprising given that Al Said regarded a painting to not only be a creation and object but also a type of spiritual quest which to him means that the process of creating is of equal importance to the final piece itself.

In this particular piece, earthy, washed out tones in the background are contrasted against the striking red line that tears through, leading the viewers eye from the top to the bottom of the painting. The line isn’t a continuous brushstroke but is in fact a tear from a red piece of paper. Despite this marked contrast in the painting, Al Said still manages to create a sense of cohesion in the work through the spontaneous energy of the shapes, composition and application of the material. Despite the fact that the piece exists in the material world, the subject itself is a spiritual one that invites the viewer to experience the visual through their emotional senses.

DIA AZZAWI (B. 1939)
Standing Figure (1989)

Currently living between London and Doha, Dia Azzawi is regarded as one of the pioneers of Modern Arab art. Born in Baghdad in 1939, he completed his studies at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad while he obtained a degree in Archaeology in 1962. Themes in his work have centred around popular folk literature such as the tales of One Thousand and One Nights or the Akkadian poem the Epic of Gilgamesh and tales from Mesopotamian mythology. In parallel to these themes, his work managed to reflect the Arab mentality during political upheaval in Iraq.

In his 1989 painting Standing Figure (pictured), Azzawi merges abstract and figurative elements flawlessly creating a stylized image where interpretation and reality co-exist in the same space. The figure appears to be hugging itself where abstract shapes and patterns are painted within his body emerge out of his left arm. Painted to have ancient sculptural or giant like qualities, the figure is attempting to stop the abstract shapes, which make up most of his body, from escaping. The viewer senses from the stunned expression of the figure, that he is almost numb to this loss of self which he attempts but fails to keep intact.

Standing Figure depicts Azzawi’s skill in bridging folk themes and visual ideas in a modern way.

Naziha Saleem (1927-2008)
Untitled (1980)

Naziha Selim was a painter who came from a family of artists. Her brother Jawad Selim (1921–1961), has been cited as one of Iraq’s most important modern sculptors while she is known to be the first Iraqi woman to have helped establish Iraqi contemporary art. After graduating from the Baghdad Fine Arts Institution, she went on to study in Paris at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts where she specialized in fresco and mural painting, graduating in 1951.

On returning to Baghdad, Selim’s work became influenced by her contemporaries as well as the Baghdad Modern Art Group whom she was heavily involved with. Portraiture, Baghdadi street scenes, mosques, and themes relating to Iraqi women were important subject matters dominating her work which was painted using contemporary stylistic experiments.

In this untitled piece (pictured above), Selim painted a man who appears to be sewing. The method and the colour palette, which consists mainly of warm hues of yellow and orange, could be considered “feminine” in the traditional understanding of the word within the context of painting application. Selim contrasts colours as a means to approach light and shadow in a new and innovative way. And while these colours are painted in geometric plains, flattening the space, organic and sensual lines throughout the painting gives a lightness to the composition.

Untitled (1968)

Lorna Selim was the wife of renowned Iraqi artist Jewad Selim but was a talented artist in her own right. She received a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Arts, London, where she obtained a diploma in painting and design in 1948. Soon after, she met Jewad Selim and returned to Baghdad where she became a member of new-founded group, Baghdad Modern Art Group.

The untitled work (pictured above) is from a series of live drawings Selim created between 1963 and 1970. The structure called Beit El Yehud (House of Jews), was one of many similar wooden structure also known as qasrs or palaces that at the time stood on the entire length of the bank of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These age-old qasrs were considered masterpieces of architectural design.

Selim was particularly drawn to Beit El Yehud spending days sketching and painting the structure. Arriving on location early in the mornings, she would sketch the base of the structure as fast and accurately as she could before it got too hot to continue and then returned to her studio to finish the works.

‘I never took any photographs of the houses as I wanted the paintings to be my own interpretation of what I saw. I do regret that now, but I was right at the time,’ Selim said of this series of work.

At the time, most of these structures were in poor condition as she sketched them and Selim chose to draw and paint those that were in fact being demolished. At times, Selim wasn’t fast enough to capture all the details she needed of a specific qasr before it was demolished and had to paint from memory or from similar structures. The reality of what happened to these buildings in Baghdad and the process of Selim attempting to record them, adds another facet to this particular work which include themes such as memory, industrialization and nostalgia.

KADHIM HAIDER (1932-1985)
And a Horse is Selling

Writer, poet and artist Kadhim Haidar paints various subject matters in a number of styles with the theme of capturing Iraqi’s socio-political history through symbolism and metaphor.

From utilizing modern design techniques and aesthetic principles, Haider’s subject matter whether from ancient Mesopotamian art to the symbol of horses that animate the demonstrations and reenactments of the Battle of Karbala, his imagery is often abstracted directing the focus on to aesthetics and away from ritualistic and historical significance.

In And a Horse is Selling, Haider depicts an abstracted horse, accompanied by a figure that seems to be guiding the horse as well as a group of figures behind the horse. Haider was involved in stage design in the late 1950’s and its east to see how theatrical elements from that have found their way in his work. Haider’s skill in rendering landscapes by applying colour in plains to show light and shadow as opposed to smaller more calculated brushstrokes must also be commended along with his bold way of pushing the figurative form past the conceptual idea of a human figure to almost abstraction.

RAKAN DABDOUB (1941-2017)
Women of Crafty Mysteries

Rakan Dabdoub’s early training in was at the academy in Rome, where his artistic practice was steeped in the methods and techniques of wood carvings. Elements of that practice can still clearly be seen in all his work where he paints as one might crave into wood applying paint and colour in a way to give his work a density or a relief quality that is seen wood carving.

Dabdoub paints from life and is particularly influenced by life in his hometown of Mosul in the north of Iraq. Everyday acts of life and general Arab heritage are major theme in his work.

Women of Crafty Mysteries is a work that embodies all of those elements. The almost square painting has a drawn frame within it and Dabdoub’s use of warm colours in the background, mostly yellow and orange, fill the painting beyond that drawn frame playing without idea of traditional space and composition.

Within the frame, we see stylised female figurative forms, elements of tradioanal Arab architecture, windows, more frames and stylised graffiti like inscriptions that also act as curtains, where they both flatten and deepen the space. To add to that, Dabdoub’s brushstrokes and layering of paint also create a sense of three dimensionality to the work.

All twelve of the Fadhil Chalabi Collection works will be on view at Christie’s Dubai in Jumeirah Emirates Towers from Monday, 19 March. For more information:

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