‘Selim occupied Baghdad with his art and positioned it as a capital for his imaginative personal view. It’s Baghdad as he knew it, and also how he dreamed it to be.’
Christie's and AMIDEAST are privileged to offer you this rare and brilliant piece by Jewad Selim, The Watermelon Seller.
AMIDEAST, previously known as AFME (American Friends of the Middle East), has a history of promoting cultural activities, such as relations and expositions that would reveal the art and artists of the Middle East to the American public. Working to promote a mutual understanding of the religious, cultural, and social aspirations of people from other parts of the world between Americans and the individuals of the Middle East and North Africa, AMIDEAST offered a variety of programs including English language and professional skills training. Founded in 1951, AFME, sponsored an exchange program of artists, scholars, and lecturers, and Jewad Selim, the pre-eminent artist representing Baghdadi Modern Art, was one of them. 'A tour of exhibitions were arranged for him at the L.D.M. Sweat Museum in Philadelphia, the Bellefeld Avenue Gallery in Pittsburgh, and the headquarters of the Mid-western office in Chicago. He ended his tour with an exhibition at the Middle East House which opened with a private showing and reception for the artist on April 8 and continued until the first of May.’ (extract from the American Friends of the Middle East brochure (1953). New York: American Friends of the Middle East, p.14).
A prominent exhibition held by the AFME in 1954 displayed numerous works by the artist. This exhibition stirred excitement in the United States as it included some of the rarest pieces that Selim had created. Subsequently, he became recognised as one of the most celebrated Arab and Iraqi painters and sculptors, as well as having an essential role in the flourishing of the modern art scene in Iraq. Selim was invited by the AFME to tour with the exhibits and at the last exhibition on April 1st 1954 he presented the AFME the present lot The Watermelon Seller, 1953, in thanks for their efforts.
Through this piece, Selim is bringing a fleeting moment to the United States. He is taking the viewer on a journey to the vivacious street markets of Iraq.
As one of the founders of the Baghdad Modern Art Group, created in 1951, Jewad Selim remains renowned for his pivotal role in shaping Iraq’s modern art movement in taking its first steps. In 1951 and 1955, the group published two manifestos, in which they assert to the masses how to achieve a distinctive Iraqi identity through modern art. ‘[Modern art]’s complexity stems from the complexity of the times in which we live,’ (J. I. Jabra, The Grass of Roots of Iraqi Art, Baghdad, 1983. p.18) claimed Selim in a lecture at the Conference Hall of the Museum of Ancient Costumes speaking about said manifestos in 1951. Born in 1919 in Ankara, Jewad Selim grew up in Iraq amidst an artistic family and went on to study art in many European cities such as Paris, Rome and London from 1939 to 1948. Upon his return to Iraq, he was subsequently appointed Head of the Sculpture Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. The artist mainly reinterpreted traditional Arabic aesthetics – decorative patterns and folkloric themes with a modern twist and appeared to place particular emphasis on the feminine figure in his paintings and sculptures.
Firmly resolved, he formed what he called Iraqi modern art; Jewad Selim defined a new trend of creation which is characterised by the link between the local culture and international influences. Selim, being an advocate for Modern art in Baghdad, was always inspired by the cultural heritage in Iraqi art, and constantly brought about political and national awareness to his homeland. He also drew inspiration from the art movements he came across while studying in Europe merged with motifs from Ancient Mesopotamia. He borrowed from international movements but still succeeded in clarifying Iraqi and Arab sensibilities. His semi-abstract, curiously figurative and dynamic compositions allude to his versatility as a painter.
Although the artist had a magnificent sensibility towards his work, he claimed to have persistently shuffled between painting and sculpting, stating in a letter to his friend Khaldoun Husri, ‘My heaviest burden is to decide how to divide my energy between painting and sculpture. I think that someday I must give up one of them because my creative ability is split between the two. I am thinking of giving up painting for good.’ (Al Fan Al 'Iraqi Al Mua'aser. (1977). Milan: Sartec, p106.) However, he was never able to give up one for the other as they were both features of his intellect. He demonstrated an unyielding essence of Iraqi art and artists.
Deep impressions were left on Jewad Selim by several European masters such as Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and especially Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). In 1958, a military revolution deposed the Hashemite monarchy, with great expectations for the country. With this change, Iraq searched for its national dignity between tradition and modernity that Jewad Selim highlighted through his masterpiece in which he depicts his sense of brotherhood and his fondness for his homeland. Selim’s untimely death in 1961 upset many artists. Artist Shaker Hassan Al-Saïd (1925-2004) said of his death, ‘We felt grief and sadness at his death in the early 1960s and that he still had a lot to do.’ (Mohammed, M. (2007). Artists Remember Celebrated Sculptor. [Online] Iraqslogger.powweb.com.). This statement was an accurate one as Selim passed away during the construction of his masterpiece, the ‘Epic of Liberty’ statue, which was erected in Tahrir Square and began in Florence in 1959, two years prior to his death.
THE WATERMELON SELLER
In the middle of this composition, a seated female figure in a street market place is raising her arms high up with the palms and fingers happily thrown out in the air in a waving fashion; she throws her arms up with a sense of a dancer’s ease. With her face split into two skin tones, Selim is touching on the aspects of East and West; or better yet, aspects of a Westernised East. While staring at the viewer with captivating almond eyes, she gestures the observer’s attention to her goods. Selim is portraying something that anyone who has been to a street market has looked at. However, just because someone is looking at something doesn’t necessarily mean they are really seeing what’s in front of them. The artist plays on this idea of ordinary people going unnoticed, which is what makes this particular piece abundant in that effort. Instead of asking the viewer to see what’s in front of them, he captivates their attention using the subject’s motions.
Rather than an extensive interest in watermelons, Jewad Selim was intrigued by the shape of crescents, inherent in the typical shape of the Baghdadi Melons being cooled in the summer sun. He had a real attachment to this shape, and it was evident in the majority of his works. Proudly attached to his personal roots, the painter’s fascination with the crescent shape’s motif is effectively associated to the Fertile Crescent of the Middle-Eastern region, which is historically considered to be the cradle of civilisation and where the first agricultural societies developed. Here, the slices of watermelons adopt this specific shape and then becomes a symbolic source of life. The subject celebrates the heritage of Iraqi people to the extent that it highlights the artisanal production.
Furthermore, the formation of shapes above the woman’s head reflects themes the artist regularly chooses to display and which portray motherhood and fertility. As previously stated, the Fertile Crescent is directly related to the source of life, the womb, and as such there is a direct connection with the notion of motherhood. In Jewad’s interpretation, maternity blatantly correlates to fertility, which in turn goes back to the birth of civilisation in Mesopotamia and reaching the final conclusion that Iraq is motherhood. As such, when the artist displays motherhood through his oeuvre, he is representing all of Iraq.
The portrait is incredibly luminous with the use of a noticeable Iraqi palette composed of pale colours and earth tones such as white, sky blue and yellow. Besides, the sun’s presence above the character’s head signals an intense luminosity and probably a strong heat in the scene. He incorporates aspects of sinuous Arabesque decorations into her garments and less conspicuously, into the forms that surround her such as the traditional oil lamp placed to the right of her arm. Using geometric shapes to render the woman’s body, Selim indicates back to his sculptural knowledge. He relentlessly challenges himself to create inimitable national qualities described by conventional forms and ornamental configurations. Through these angular formations, he shows his technical mastery for the representation of proportions by drawing diverse geometric elements.
The Watermelon Seller, from one of the most important early exhibitions of Arab Art on this international socio political platform triggered a great sensation and opened a new window on the Arab world through its Art. This is an outstanding and exceptional example of Selim’s practice, and one of the most important works of Iraqi art to appear at auction, revealing the essence of his art as he sought to fnd the perfect stylistic association in order to affirm a singular artistic identity.