'His Buraq is in part the horse of the Prophet's night journey, and in part the soul's journey through the dark blues of man's endless night of mystery.'
(Jabra Ibrahim Jabra)
Published in Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's infamous book on Iraqi art entitled The Grass Roots of Iraqi Art (1983) and originally part of the art critic and writer's private collection, Al-Buraq is an outstanding example by pioneer Modern Iraqi artist Kadhim Haider. Al-Buraq relates to the themes tackled in his most renowned body of work known as the Martyr's Epic ('Melhamet Al Shahidi' - 1965), based on a poem he wrote which refers to episodes from the martyrdom of Imam Al-Hussein at the Battle of Karbala.
The title of this monumental masterpiece Al-Buraq translates literally as 'lightning' in English. It refers to a mythological creature in Islam, who carried the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to the 'farthest mosque' unanimously identified as Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and back during the 'Isra' or 'Mi'raj' or 'Night Journey', accompanied by the angel Jibril (Gabriel). During this 'Night Journey', Prophet Mohammed encountered the various heavens, the earlier prophets and God (Allah), hence defining his destiny. The 'Buraq' has been described as 'handsome-faced and bridled, a tall, white beast, bigger than the donkey but smaller than the mule. He could place his hooves at the farthest boundary of his gaze. He had long ears. () He had two wings on his thighs, which lent strength to his legs' (Muhammad al-Alawi al-Maliki).
Combining poetry, myth and metaphor, Kadhim Haider creates his own personification of Al-Buraq using his symbolic pictorial vernacular to produce an abstract creature hinting to the above description of Al-Buraq with its 'two wings on his thighs' and it being a 'white beast'. Floating amidst a variation of deep blue tones, Haider omits the 'handsome-face' by removing all facial features, enhancing the magical powers of Al-Buraq, that fills up most of the pictorial space of the present work with its imposing wings and possibly 'long ears'. Moreover, Haider opts for the Islamic tradition of suppressing the portrayal of the human figure, because of the fear that people would worship the image rather than God Himself. Stylistically and in terms of overall color tones, Al-Buraq is comparable to one of the highlights of the esteemed collection of the Barjeel Foundation in Sharjah, The Martyr's Epic in which Haider's signature and simplified forms and composition are closely related to that of Al-Buraq. In terms of subject matter, the scene depicted in The Martyr's Epic commemorates the annual mourning for Imam Al-Hussein's martyrdom showing bright white horses participating to the ceremonies of grief under a symbolically blood-red moon. Pain and horror of the reality permeate through this painting as opposed to the more lyrical and metaphysical tone that dominates Al-Buraq.
This large masterpiece by Haider epitomizes what Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920-1994) laid out in his groundbreaking article of 1961 entitled 'Art in Iraq To-day' (published in D. Al-Azzawi, C.Pocock & S.Faruqi (eds.), Art in Iraq Today, Milan, 2011, p. 32-33), in stating that 'most artists in Iraq look on ancient Mesopotamian sculpture and bas reliefs not only as a source of influence but also as the ground where their roots are implanted'. Despite Al-Buraq's Modernist approach with its Cubist and Symbolist resonance, Haider also pays tribute to his homeland's cultural heritage and more particularly to Mesopotamian Art. This painting appears like a colorful two-dimensional Mesopotamian bas-relief and the subdued liveliness and strange features of this mythological creature seem to allude to the 'lamassu', an Assyrian protective deity. It is often represented in art as hybrid creatures, having the body of a winged lion or ox and a human head, following the iconography that was first exposed in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. The religious and mythical connotations of Haider's Al-Buraq are hence complemented by the poetic, nostalgic and historical dimensions skillfully infused by the artist. He simultaneously captures a fragment of the roots of Islam as well as an aspect of Mesopotamian art and civilization, ultimately using these references as allegories for contemporary Iraqi socio-political history in this extraordinary painting.