through writing and painting, Mahmoud Sabri helped to establish an assorted awareness in Iraq and the Middle East pushing a development in artistic expression and as a result is long recognised as a thinker and one of the most important figures in laying the foundations of Modern Iraqi art.
Born in 1927 in Baghdad, Sabri left to the United Kingdom to complete his studies in social sciences. There he met Zaid Saleh in Loughborough where the two discussed their personal ideologies as well as art and history. Inspired to start painting himself, Sabri returned to Baghdad in 1949 and took up a position in a bank where he later became head. He meanwhile had met with the group of artists that was to eventually form the Societé Primitive. Unlike the Jama’t Al Fan Al Hadith, including Jewad Selim and Shaker Hassan Al Said who believed in the adoption of Iraqi heritage only, Sabri was committed to the ideology that everyone’s cultural heritage should be incorporated and adopted as his own. Due to the changing political climate of 1950s Iraq which developed a deep rift between the higher and lower classes, involvement in the life of the hardships of the poor and dispossessed became a distinguishing mark of a majority of Iraqi art in the early and mid-1950s. Unlike his artistic counterparts who were more concerned with producing works that were more aesthetic in style particularly focusing on pastoral compositions, Sabri was indifferent to the ‘nicer’ notions of style and traditions that were important to others. As a result, he was preoccupied with using his works to highlight social and political issues and the plight of the people. Sabri’s agony, so to speak, was partly political, partly existential and so the treatment of his social themes was full of pain, protest and anger. His early works were characterised by social consciousness and humanitarianism. In his paintings he thus depicted revolutionaries, poverty, floods and demonstrations; his individuals became characterised by a leanness and toughness that cemented Sabri’s stance on social issues labelling him often as a socialist or even communist supporter. It was during this period that Sabri produced a series of works which would take him over 12 years to complete entitled Janazet Al Shahid (Funeral of a Martyr), an example of which was offered at Christie’s Dubai in March 2015 and achieved US$317,000.
In 1960, following the coup and the instability that followed in Iraq in 1958, Sabri, considered by many to be pro Communist, left for Russia to study at the Surikov Institute of Art under the artist Alexander Deyneka, who was very impressed with his work. In turn Sabri was very inspired by Russian sculpture and paintings, particularly the Soviet Socialist Realist style whilst simultaneously becoming enamoured with Russian icons. There was a development and shift in Sabri’s style following his time in Russia that showed a direct link stylistically to iconography with a palette that reached out beyond his classical use of blacks and reds.
Christie’s is delighted to be offering a work from this period entitled Hero, which not only marks Sabri’s shift in visual style but shows a decidedly strong application of more precise lines and details matching the very aggressive and pivotal moment in Iraq’s history. Depicting Hussain Al-Radi (or Salam Adel as he was more commonly known), Sabri chooses to capture the exact moment in which the leader of the Communist party in Iraq was hung following the Ramadan Revolution by the Baathist party in 1963. Al-Radi was captured on 20 February and executed soon afterwards/ Although the Government officially announced Al-Radi’s hanging, it was not made public. Rumour has it that he died under torture four days after his arrest without divulging any information, and so in many ways he became a martyr and consequent hero for the Communist cause and ideal.
In Hero, Sabri chooses to show Al-Radi as he stands at the gallows. Strong and determined, his presence dominates the canvas – a reflection of what can be construed as Sabri’s deep-rooted respect for him. Whilst Al-Radi remains poised, his stoic expression is broken by the desperately emotional woman at his feet – her hand raised in despair, she symbolises a weeping and desolate Iraq, clothed in black as if to suggest mourning the demise of her country through the demise of Al-Radi. Equally, this trinity of figures – a reference to the Christian Icons Sabri so loved – is completed by a nationalistic figure who proudly flies the red (Communist) flag, as if to impart the sense that communism is not dead, but rather will live on with the people. To the side, a man playing the drum is indicative of the sounds heard during a funeral procession. The female figure next to him, crying in mourning also reflects the traditional rituals afforded to a funeral procession that are repeated motifs seen in his Janazet series. To the lower left, a small child peers out into the audience, its presence is two-fold; one is to indicate the effect the coup and consequent Baathist acquisition of power will have on future generations, the other is to highlight the potential for the younger generation to take on the new responsibility in bringing about change. Angelic in his disposition, almost like the Virgin Mary and Christ, Sabri appears to thus use the child as a beacon of light signalling the arrival of revolution. Although tragic, Hero is in fact a strong reminder of the strength of character of the Iraqi masses. Each of the characters’ faces show a sense of determination and defiance highlighted by the abstract and harsh linear treatment of the figures. Their prominent eyes, a distinct characteristic of Sabri’s work during this period, serve to highlight the intensity of the situation and the resistance in the face of death as in fact an affirmation of life. Coupled with a deep and rich red colour palette, Sabri thus exemplifies the notion that the spirit of the people is and will remain unbroken.
In the mid-late 1960s, Sabri became interested in Iraqi heritage and the architecture and art of the Sumerians and Babylonians. Reading and researching further he was captivated by the use of symbols in historical artefacts, where different characters were used to highlight the difference in social sectors, particularly the strength of the ruling authority and overpowering of slaves as well as the Sumerian renditions of the relationship between humans and animals, animals with animals. What stood out to him in specific was the interplay between the strongest and the weakest. Many of his works from this period onwards would thus include a headless figure, a symbol of terrorism and slavery that offered an abstract discourse on current affairs. In Hero, this headless figure is extremely prevalent. A reference to the hanging of Al-Radi, it equally implies political discourse on the shift of powers. Jarring in its aggressive quality and palette of whites and bloody reds, this power struggle, a representation of the shift between the Communists and Ba’athists becomes extremely poignant and Sabri’s stance becomes extremely clear. As such, Hero is a culmination of a multifaceted representation of Sabri’s political and social ideologies that were intensified following the Ba’athist Coup.