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Once upon a time in a city called Baghdad, a little boy named Ayad drew an airplane.
This was well before similar aircraft hit New York’s World Trade Center and engulfed his nation in war. Baghdad in 1978 was a wealthy city, coasting on high oil revenues, littered with bright cafes and bustling markets, and little prepared for the terror Saddam Hussein’s newly-ascendant regime would soon unleash.
But that afternoon, six-year-old Ayad Alkadhi was confronted by authorities closer to home.
“One of my earliest memories was drawing an airplane behind the family-room door, then getting punished for it,” he said. Now one of the most prominent Iraqi painters, Alkadhi’s nation soon saw swifter punishment. Saddam’s rise to power shattered his childhood and unleashed two decades of brutality that left as many as a million Iraqis dead.
The six-year-old survived, but his pictures changed. Out went aircraft, in came dangling, fluorescent-colored gas pumps, blood-red teasing tongues, and various human forms in wild, colorful contortions that seem to wriggle right off the edges of his canvases—or would, if they weren’t representing immobile heaps of corpses.
“I wanted to talk about the casualties of war,” Alkadhi said bluntly during a recent interview in New York. “Being a survivor, you always have to look back and nod at those who did not make it.”
His latest “Umbilical” collection, which recently wrapped up a solo show at the Leila Heller Gallery in New York City and nearly sold out, culminates a quarter-century of his life’s work. “I rounded up everything,” he said, “which included Iraq, and Saddam, and the wars, and then emigration, and assimilation” in the West.
A leading artist among the Iraqi diaspora, Alkadhi’s success reflects his unique artistic voice as much as it does a growing wellspring of interest in contemporary art from the region. His career sets an example for young Iraqi artists coming of age today, not least because Alkhadi’s generation and the rising generation of “war children” have both sustained battered upbringings under different regimes.
Alkadhi describes himself as a “visual storyteller,” and for him, the historical narrative is personal as much as it is political. “I will always analyze things in comparison” with the war, he said. “It’s interesting because, you know, those important early years are the standard by which you compare all your adult experiences. And a child of war, and a society of war like Iraq, whatever we do, our war generation, we will always compare—that will be our backdrop.”
Early on, the artist faced resistance from his family and was pushed to pursue engineering, a career choice traditionally held in higher esteem in Iraqi society. It’s a common story—many young creatives in Iraq today continue to be pushed away from the arts by their families. It was only after Alkadhi moved abroad that he was able to focus exclusively on his artistic output.
But his works are receiving growing attention as his artistic community back home is just starting to reassert itself—in June, The New York Times found that applications to Baghdad’s art schools have gone up some 25 percent since 2008. For many of these students, however, Alkadhi’s work can seem worlds away, despite their shared heritage. The artist’s 18-year integration experience with the West has brought with it a complete transliteration of his aesthetic ideas and Iraqi identity. His works have become almost “bilingual,” capable of engaging both Iraqi and foreign audiences in different ways at the same time.
Indeed, audiences in the West are responding with growing interest to the region’s artistic output. The Economist reported that Christie’s Dubai auction house has seen a 500 percent increase in Middle Eastern art sales over the last five years. The Dubai Art Fair, where Alkadhi’s collection was on display, also saw a record-breaking audience of 20,000 people turn up this year.
Iraqi artist and art critic Ali Najjar said Alkadhi’s success has to do with his approach, describing it as a mix of “culture and politics.”
“But his work do not lack beauty, unlike the work of many of his Iraqi artist colleagues, and his work reminds me of younger Iranian artists living in the Levant, except the style and topics are different,” he wrote in an email interview.
What’s immediately striking is the prismatic nature of Alkadhi’s work on display in his recent “Umbilical” collection, a series of imposing, two-meter by two-meter paintings in acrylic, pen, pencil, and charcoal.
One piece pays homage to Rodin’s “The Thinker” amid a collage-like veil of Arabic newspapers. Another, “Venus-Iraq,” nods back to Bellini as modern gas pump imagery drives the piece forward.
Iranian-American Mona Shomali, a visitor to “Umbilical’s New York show, said the collection is “making history alive again” for her.
“Petroleum is a great way to couch these issues, because that is in American’s minds, it’s like a hook,” she said. Shomali, a painter herself, described his works as “almost rendered” like a digital work, but without losing a sense of being “raw.”
Gallery owner Leila Heller, who has worked with Alkadhi for the last six years and is a driving force behind his latest project, says his work is a perfect example of why, when it comes to art, “the region cannot be ignored.”
Alkadhi, who just turned 40 but looks ten years younger, can speak with remarkable equanimity about conflict in Iraq, where death tolls range from 500,000 to a million people killed under Saddam’s two-decade reign. Alkadhi fled the violence in 1994 and has not returned.
His memories of violence appear to have fled in artistic form. When Alkadhi discusses the conflict, the only change comes as a slight shift in his piercing dark eyes—they go gravelly, as if weighted down by a deep-seated, dull ache. When he lifted his gaze off me to gesture at the work behind him during our conversation about the war, I experienced a palpable release.
Actually, this painting behind us, ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ is about that,” he explained, “about the casualties of war in Iraq.”
Alkhadi sees such works as an extension of the region’s esteemed and ancient artistic legacy.
For what is life “without art?” he asked me. “That’s what remains of us.”
“After all that’s said and done, what’s left of the Greeks or the Romans?”
Alkadhi’s collectors no doubt hope to see his work similarly appreciated.
Kristin Deasy is an international reporter based in Berlin. She has written for publications in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, and writes a blog for World Affairs Journal.