Along with Shaker Hassan Al Said (below), Dia Al-Azzawi is regarded as one of Iraq’s most influential modern artists, creating works that merge contemporary techniques with references to ancient traditions. A former archaeology student, Al-Azzawi grew up captivated by the artefacts of the Iraq Museum, which continued to influence him when he studied at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1964.
In 1969, he became a founding member of Iraq’s New Vision Group, its members united not by style but by a desire to change an art scene they felt had grown rigid. Active during a period of political unrest, they created works that also reflected changes across the Arab world.
Shaker Hassan Al Said was a founding member of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in 1951, its members championing art that drew upon the country’s heritage, or istilham al-turath. Al Said came to be recognised as a pioneer, penning a manifesto that has been described by Qatar’s Mathaf museum as ‘the true birth of modern art in Iraq’.
As a teacher, theorist and historian, Al Said was rooted in both past and present, his international outlook resulting in works that were a synthesis of Arab culture and European Modernism. A brief period in France introduced him to works by Braque, Picasso and Klee, with the flat colour planes and bold contours of the post-Impressionist Cloissonism style also a visible influence in his work.
In 1950, Saliba Douaihy left his native Lebanon for New York. Although his abstract works had gained recognition in his home country, New York’s art scene offered an energy that Lebanon did not. Here, Modernist principles vied with a new mode of Abstract Expressionism, with artists including Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann and Ad Reinhardt challenging approaches to form and colour.
The move visibly shaped Douaihy’s output. After 10 years in New York, his earlier academic style had all but disappeared, to be replaced with a new mode of minimal abstraction. Working in series, the artist produced canvases depicting flat, monochromatic forms, their blocks of vibrant colour cut with fine lines and sharp edges. That style characterised his production until his death in 1994.
Composed of brightly coloured, interlinking asymmetrical planes, the 1966 work Connection exemplifies these influences, exploring Douaihy’s principle of ‘infinite space’, in which paradoxically ‘flat’ colour appears to extend beyond the boundaries of the canvas. Although abstract, the work echoes Douaihy’s earlier Realist landscapes — a reference, perhaps, to the enduring influence of his childhood home in the mountains of northern Lebanon.
The son of Egypt’s Prime Minister, Mahmoud Saïd worked as a lawyer, prosecutor and judge. Although his successful legal career met with society’s approval, it denied a much stronger desire to make art. In 1947, at the age of 50, Saïd resigned from his legal career to become an artist full time.
Saïd’s oil paintings employ Western techniques to capture his native Egypt, depicting landscapes and scenes of contemporary life that reference the country’s long history. His subjects include veiled women filling water jars at the edge of ancient temples, men in turbans drawing water from wells, dances and scenes of Islamic ritual.
Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian lived and worked in New York from 1945 to 1957, meeting artists including Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell. Other acquaintances included Andy Warhol, who gave Farmanfarmaian a selection of illustrations in exchange for a mirror ball — the glittering object remaining on the desk of Warhol’s Madison Avenue home until his death in 1987.
In 1957, Farmanfarmaian returned to her native country, learning traditional art forms including Turkoman jewellery, reverse glass painting and coffee-house painting — a popular form of Iranian narrative art. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution would force her to leave again: she began a 26-year exile in New York, although her attachment to her distant homeland remained central to her practice.
Farmanfarmaian’s mirror balls, casting kaleidoscopic beams of coloured light, exude the glitzy pop culture the artist encountered in 1970s America. To make them, she employed the reverse glass painting she had learnt in Iran. Though far removed from New York’s disco scene, the traditions of Islamic design, with its geometric forms, continued to influence her work.
Born in Ankara in 1919, Jewad Selim studied sculpture in Paris, London and Rome. His works show the strong influence of 20th-century European masters including Picasso and Henry Moore. Together with Shaker Hassan Al Said, he formed the Baghdad Modern Art Group, as well as a new Baghdad School of Modern Art.
After his sojourn in Europe, Selim was appointed head of sculpture at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad — a position he retained until his death in 1961. He died before completing what is perhaps his best-known work, the Monument to Freedom, which celebrated Iraq’s 1958 revolution and is today located in one of Baghdad’s main squares.
An Iraqi-born feminist artist living in the United States, Hayv Kahraman has studied in Florence and lived in Africa and Southeast Asia. Focusing specifically on female identity, Kahraman explores the theme of women overburdened by culture. Borrowing from Eastern and Western art-historical traditions, she brings together the influence of Persian and Chinese miniatures, Japanese prints, European Old Masters, Symbolism and Surrealism.
Her highly polished technique is emphasised by the juxtaposition of wooden board and painted patterns, which add to a sense of spatial illusion. Her figures are often mirrored, intertwined at the arm with their reflected selves, with inversions of patterned or plain ground in directly opposite areas.
While themes of gender and exile are catalysts in her work, Kahraman explores the female form as a cultural construct and rethinks the bond between body and space. Her style is infused with a rich cultural inheritance as well as her observation of the contemporary world.
Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki is known for his Moulatham series, portraits of ‘freedom fighters’ — or ‘fedayeen’, as they are commonly known — that form an important part of his oeuvre. Baalbaki’s work reflects the identity of his home region, viewed through the prism of his childhood during the Lebanese Civil War. Flooding his canvases with colour, these emotive works channel the loss and devastation he has experienced, described by the artist as ‘the chaos of the war [that] allowed us to become ourselves’.
Alongside his portraits, Baalbaki’s Expressionist painting Babel, from 2005, offers an insight into how he combines art-historical and contemporary themes. His transformation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s iconic treatment of the biblical tower strips away the classical and symbolic allusions of the Flemish master, creating a landscape void of human presence, as if to reflect a scene impacted by war.