"Iraqi Artists in Exile" Showcase Their Haunting Works

Cut and Shot

To fully appreciate "Iraqi Artists in Exile" at the Station Museum, start with Tamziq #1 (1991) by a founding father of Iraqi modern art, Shakir Hasan Al Said (1925-2004). The work, which translates as "cutting up," is a small painting on wood, whose surface has been scratched, with entire areas of the board cut out and into. His paint, in earth tones with small bits of blue, has been smeared, dripped and dabbed on, in a method that has some calling him the Jackson Pollock of Iraq. Al Said died of a deep depression in Baghdad in 2004. "Iraqi Artists in Exile" is dedicated to him and includes the works of 14 other artists, all but one living outside of Iraq. The show, whose chief curator is Alan Schnitger, is only the second museum-level exhibition of contemporary Iraqi art to come to the United States.

In 1951, Al Said co-founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group, a collective that aimed to achieve an artistic approach both modern and embracing of tradition, a truly Iraqi modern style. In time, Al Said transitioned from figurative to abstract work, a shift that had more to do with Islamic Sufism than the allure of Western modernity. To Al Said, painting wasn't "creating" but rather an act of sacred contemplation, like a calligrapher writing the words of the Qur'an. Based on his beliefs, Al-Said developed an art philosophy called al-Bua'd al-Wahid, or One Dimension. Briefly stated, One Dimension is that area located between the visible (our world) and the invisible (the realm of God). By cutting, slashing and piercing his paintings, Al Said "opened up" the One Dimension trying to contemplate the Sacred and seek the Truth.

Almost all 14 artists in the exhibit, regardless of the medium they work in, employ Al Said-like techniques including cutting, splashing, scratching, obscuring and peppering works with bullet holes. By doing so, they ask us to contemplate the terrible devastation brought by the U.S. war and occupation to Iraq, its people and its culture, one of the oldest in the world.

Shakir Hasan Al Said cuts, slashes and pierces his paintings.
Courtesy of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art
Shakir Hasan Al Said cuts, slashes and pierces his paintings.


Through February 1.
The Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900.

In the front gallery, Dia Al-Azzawi's painted triptych Bilad Al-Sawad ("black ore fertile land," 2006-2007) speaks of the desecration of antiquities, of torture and murder, of the greed for oil. As a young man, Al-Azzawi studied anthropology and art, and he often integrates ancient forms into his work. Bullet holes riddle the surfaces of all three works.

Both Bilad Al-Sawad No. 7 and No. 8 are bordered in cuneiform hatches, referencing ancient Sumerian letterforms. No. 7 has a black background with drips of red paint running down its surface; in its center is seated a fiberglass figure, modeled after Sumerian votives and wrapped in barbwire. No. 8, with its sludge-gray background scratched to reveal the color of red clay, has in its center an upside down fiberglass Sumerian figure, suspended by barbed wire. Both figures, painted white and gray with patterns and newspaper collage, have red handprints slapped on their chests, a symbol repeated throughout the show. (The bloody handprint may denote the sacrifices of one of Islam's most revered heroes, Hazrat Abbas.)

Very different from the others, Bilad Al-Sawad No. 5 looks like an abstract aerial view of Baghdad, painted in layered divisions of black, grays and tans. A dark grey area corresponds to the Tigris River flowing through the city, and the final black layer seems to designate streets, specific structures, and neighborhoods destroyed. As in Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic, black symbolizes death and here also refers to oil, the real cause of the war. Black as an obliterating force is another motif repeated throughout the show.

Sadly, No. 7 and No. 8 remind me of the very worst of student work. No. 5, however, is an incredibly strong piece, beautifully painted and more evocative of the very real human impact of the war.

Another strong piece in the front gallery is a large manipulated photo on canvas diptych by Nedim Kufi called Home/Empty. For Home (1966), Kufi has enlarged a Polaroid of himself taken by his father when the artist was four years old. In the photo, the young boy, wearing a pair of overall shorts, stands on a tile floor in front of a stucco wall. The young Nedim proudly hoists his new tricycle, upside down, with a very palpable joy on his face. In Empty (2008), there is no more joy. Kufi has digitally removed himself and the trike from the original, with only the tiles and wall remaining, symbolizing the untold number of Iraqis exiled, killed or imprisoned. The pieces are strategically hung, so that when initially viewing Home you do not see Empty, making the absence of life even more apparent.

The second room contains an exhibit of dafatir, or notebooks, a uniquely "modern Iraqi art form [that] fuses the Iraqi history of ancient illuminated manuscripts and paper making with a modern stylistic expression, creating an evocative visual narrative about the injustices ...endure[d]." (Wall text)

Commemorating the annihilation of Al Mutanabi Street, known as the cultural artery of Baghdad and famous for its book markets, Himat Mohammad Ali's Al Mutanabi Street (2007) consists of 12 notebooks, displayed so that we are able to view only an open page of each. Some incorporate old manuscript pages, others images from magazines and newspapers. One notebook is opened to an old manuscript page set against a larger black background, the edges of which are tinged red. The manuscript itself is dotted with red marks, each resembling a bloody knuckle print. Another of the notebooks shows a neighborhood of beautiful tile buildings with minarets. The sky above is filled with the metallic billowing clouds of a bomb. The juxtaposition of jewel-like architecture with the poisonous cloud accentuates how great this cultural loss is to all mankind.

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