Walid Siti in Context: An Overview of Modern and Contemporary Iraqi Art – Nada Shabout

For most people, Iraq’s art is as ambiguous as the state of the country is today. There has certainly been a number of exhibitions of contemporary Iraqi art in the last decade and a half, but its modern roots remain vague. What most people do not know is that the twentieth century had marked very mature developments in modern movements and aesthetic experiments in Baghdad and witnessed a rapid progress with specific periods of extreme and vital creativity. That art history of the twentieth century initiated and set deep roots for the trajectory of art by Iraqi artists that continues today to affect its contemporary development, including for artists in diaspora, like Walid Siti.

In its postcolonial development of modern art, the nation and national identity were important for the development of Iraqi art. The negotiation of modernity in art facilitated and shaped new spaces within which new identities were negotiated and contested, and new and renewed visual cultural icons were formed. Politics played a significant role in directing progression and shifts of art as they still do today. However, the mid-twentieth century provided an important context for artists’ visualization of Iraqi identities, despite internal tensions within the new nation that seem to be lacking in today’s discourse.

The turbulence of the political milieu leading to the 1958 revolution was a period of change and growth through the strength of a number of artists groups. “Friends of Art Society,” formed in 1941, affected the understanding and reception of modern art in Baghdad. The establishment of the Society paralleled a more formalized interest in the arts, evident in the founding of the Institute of Fine Arts in 1936 for music, which grew to encompass visual art in 1940. The Society also started a tradition of annual exhibitions displaying works of its membership, which included the most innovative Iraqi artists at the time, among them Faiq Hassan, Issa Hannah, Hafidh al-Droubi, and Jewad Selim.

Société Primitif (SP) (primitive to mean bida’i as in intuitive, original and simple) played an even wider role in promoting modern art and artists. The group was formed officially in 1947, but was informally led by Faiq Hassan from 1943, with organized artists’ trips on Fridays and longer camping ones over the summer in rural Baghdad and around the country. S.P. organized their first annual exhibition on December 22, 1950, which also marked the occasion that they chose an Arabic name for the group, al-Ruwwad, meaning “researchers on the move” and not the pioneers as the word is generally translated. One could argue that the change of name signaled a more mature approach for the group. Stylistically, it also signaled a pronounced move from the favored Impressionist style of the SP to various Post-Impressionist ones, with abstraction holding strong interest for them. Thus instead of an introspective group of Iraqi artists that SP marked, the group would project a more internationally engaged image.

Of specific importance were the trips the group took together, as they specifically contributed to the imagining of the new state of Iraq but also introducing the rest of Iraq to modern art, albeit indirectly. Faiq Hassan’s famous paintings of Iraqi Kurds, for example, were the result of one of the group’s trips to northern Iraq where they explored nature and costumes and produced many of their works. These trips to the north in search of landscape would become instrumental in the national consciousness, introducing Iraqis to the distant areas and peoples of what constituted the new Iraqi state and nation.

Al-Ruwwad were an effort of reaching an aesthetic collective based on the local and national environment through the senses and friendship that formed new social gatherings away from the familial and tribal and thus instrumental in the changing of the Iraqi society in Baghdad. The post-World War period and new struggle that led to the 1958 revolution, however, would necessarily affect the direction of art. The formation of Jamaat Baghdad Lil Fan al-Hadith (the Baghdad Group for Modern Art) that followed, thus, came to intellectually balance al-Ruwwad.

The Baghdad Group for Modern Art was formed by Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said in 1951. Selim perceived the formation of a new group as a necessary step beyond what al-Ruwwad had accomplished in their efforts to introduce modern art in Iraq. Considered as Iraq’s most significant art group, the artists of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art gathered around the concept of istilham al-turath (seeking inspiration and motivation from heritage through an innovative engagement with it) to initiate a new way of thinking about making art.

Equally, one can argue that the Baghdad Group of Modern Art was formed to begin a necessary negotiation between a new postcolonial national consciousness and European (albeit perceived as international and transnational) modernism. Their visual language, in accordance with the philosophy and spirit of modernity and the concept of the nation-state, was based on the reduction and appropriation of what they believed constituted the “Iraqiness” of the various and multiple factions of society, which were then merged into a single identity representative of a pluralistic whole.

Through their work, the group established methodologies that opened doors for analytical and critical deconstruction of history and tradition and their reconstruction into cultural icons loaded with the symbolism of cultural identity and established a legacy that lived beyond their time. Al Said would continue his experiments in new directions and his teaching and vision would influence generations to follow.

The political optimism of the 1950s had evaporated in the wake of the 1963 turmoil. The 1960s generation of artists witnessed a pivotal shift, hallmarked by intense period of search and experimentation that spanned through the 1970s. Al-Ru’yya al-Jadidah (the New Vision Group), consisting of artists Dia Azzawi, Mohammed Muhraldin, Rafa al-Nasiri, Saleh Al-Jumaie and Ismail Fattah, marked artists’ new approaches, aesthetics and goals. The group came together following the defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and was thus influenced by the same sentiments of denial and defiance expressed by all Arab peoples. They were also affected by the fever of pan-Arabism and the desire for Arab unity that gave their understanding of istilham al-turath a new transnational bend. Thus, Iraqi artists of the 1960s constituted an important link between the pioneers and the generations that followed.

The 1970s, however, ushered stronger and more direct state involvement and control over the arts. It was also a decade of heightened inter-Arab activities including state-organized festivals, like al-Wassiti festival in Iraq, which facilitated the launch of the Union of Arab Plastic Artists and the Arab Biennial. Poster art became popular and a strong interest in printmaking techniques emerged, particularly after Rafa al-Nasiri joined the teaching faculty of the Fine Arts Institute.

It is within this milieu that Walid Siti moved to Baghdad and started his art career. Siti was trained in Baghdad at the Institute of Fine arts by Shakir Hassan Al Said and Rafa al-Nasiri among others (graduated 1976), who filtered through their teachings their philosophy of istilham al-turath and revolutionary art. While Siti matured as an artist outside of Iraq, the importance of tradition that was instilled in him by his teachers seems to have been internalized and would manifest in his work in exile. In his contemporary compositions, oscillating between natural and architectural structures, Siti negotiates his somber understanding of istilham al-turath, and in relation to Iraq’s complex current realities.

Siti’s structures seemingly blur lines between cultural construction as was preached by the Baghdad Group of Modern Art and destruction of cultural heritage that has ensued since the 2003-invasion. Siti, thus, engages the absence of the object, or its memory, and instead represent it through its traces. His technique recalls the philosophy argued by Al Said during the 1970s and 1980s that privileged the effect of time and history as a form of contemplation and not creation. Stairways, passages, ladders, towers, ephemeral in their being, appear to always be in a state of incomplete becoming. They are at once archeological excavation and reconstruction of heritage while equally alluding to the destruction caused by man and politics. They are, nevertheless, traces that recall the mythical history that Siti’s teachers had hoped to construct anew.

The 1980s and the long years of Iraq-Iran war initiated a period of increasing isolation and introspection, particularly during the economic sanctions of the 1990s. An internal dialogue resulted in a new dynamic that reinvigorated Siti’s generation of artists’ relation to Iraq’s history while they remained secluded from the world. Moreover, the lack of state patronage and infrastructure, coupled with lack of security necessarily caused a drastic shift in the trajectories of Iraqi art and made making art in Iraq difficult. Mass displacement of artists outside of Iraq dislocated Iraq’s habitual art center into exile.     

While escaping the internal isolation of the 1980s and 1990s and then abrupt reentry into the world, Siti is still part of a generation of Iraqi artists who have been dubbed the lost generation. They did not stop creating or progressing, but the history of art in Iraq became suspended. Unable to return in 1982 in light of intensified state violence in Iraq’s Kurdistan and the tumult of the Iraq-Iran war, Siti battled different realities of marginalization and displacement while studying in Yugoslavia and then settling in the UK. Most importantly, he missed on his generation of artists’ reengagement with tradition in defining a new Iraqi identity. Instead, his isolation outside of Iraq and within the changing rhetoric of identities that followed, Siti’s Kurdish roots felt more threatened. Nevertheless, his structures, which are mostly stripped from identity iconography, and despite hints of al-malwiya or Kurdish text in some works, argue for a troubled transregionality and transnationality within his country of Iraq.

The new interest in contemporary Iraqi art that followed the 2003-invasion was conditioned by the politics of a victimized people or a new “liberated” nation. Nevertheless, and despite the exploitation of Iraqi art by politics and the media, a new generation of Iraqi artists, including Siti, provoked the attention of the mainstream art establishment and the media in the West. While politics remain an important motivation for such interest, the ingenuity and aesthetics of Iraqi contemporaneity in exile cannot be ignored, nor can Siti’s powerful images of a reality suspended in history.