Spotlight: Iraqi Artist Ayad Alkadhi

Zane Razzaq ’15
Assistant Arts Editor

If the reaction to the Smith College Museum of Art exhibition “Collecting Art from Asia” is any indication, Smith students feel positively about the museum’s continued commitment to non-Western art. With March 20 marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, now would be an opportune time for the museum to further its commitment by showcasing Iraqi art. This focus would expose locals and Smith students to a culture largely misrepresented by sensationalized news media and thus, misunderstood. And as one of the leading artists from the Iraqi diaspora, Ayad Alkadhi’s art presents a perfect argument for why this region, and its artists, should not be ignored.

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Alkadhi spent his childhood in England, the United Arab Emirates and Baghdad. In 1994, after the first Gulf War, Alkadhi left Iraq “for a better future” moving first to Amman, Jordan, before moving to Auckland, New Zealand. He now lives and works in New York City. Alkadhi received his MFA from the New York University’s ITP Tisch School of the Arts and has exhibited his works in the Middle East, New Zealand, Europe and the U.S. This March, he will be revealing two new paintings at the Armory Show in New York City, which, according to his press release, will make reference to “the fragmented struggles of his homeland Iraq” and “the burgeoning young democracies and governments that have come to power since the Arab Spring in 2011.”

In an interview with the artist, Alkadhi clarified that because “the media mainly focuses on the collective impact of events rather than the individual stories of the humans involved,” the ambition of his work is to shed light on “the individual stories of those not heard loud or clear enough.” Through layers of charcoal and paint, and the incorporation of Arabic newspaper and Arabic calligraphy, Alkadhi crafts provocative narratives about war, politics, identity and his memories of home.

Alkadhi’s use of calligraphy is especially striking. He follows the Islamic calligraphic tradition of transforming Arabic script into images such as chains, swords and rifles, but also simultaneously incorporates elements of Western culture. His calligraphic paintings often include human figures and faces overlaid with Arabic script, which often covers the entire canvas.

Along with his commitment to telling individual stories of those affected in war, Alkadhi uses the presence of calligraphy to “convey the element of storytelling” and show the viewer that the person in the painting had a story and a history. In his “Islam International” series, which depicts Muslim communities assimilating into Western societies, he juxtaposes the image of a veiled woman covered in Arabic calligraphy with pop culture images of Mickey Mouse, Sophia Loren and a French croissant. In speaking of this particular technique, Alkadhi noted that tongue-in-cheek references “used at the right time, in the right place, can be very effective in relaying certain thoughts and narratives.”

Aside from the use of calligraphy, Alkadhi uses color effectively in his work as well. In his composition “Sleeping Beauties,” the painting is marked with unexpectedly bright color. Forbes Magazine writer Abigail R. Esman said of this painting, “that superficial attractiveness – based on the bright use of color – shrouds the darker visual metaphors for that same death and horror of that [which] compels much of Alkadhi’s work.”

Alkadhi has noted how he perceives his own responsibility as a war survivor to talk about the casualties of war.

“Being a survivor, you always have to look back and nod at those who did not make it,” he said in a recent interview with World Policy. On the role of the artist in times of war, Alkadhi said, “art in times of war is a visual and psychological documentation of that period … future generations will look at the work and associate it with the times, events and stories that inspired it.”

Alkadhi’s art “focuses on the human condition under extreme political and social circumstances.” Displaying Alkadhi’s work would present the Smith College Museum of Art with an opportunity to expose Smith students to the creative resistance in which those who live in diasporas are engaging. Alkadhi’s work explodes stereotypes about Iraqi art: that the country has no history of modern art, that their art is something that belongs in the past and that their artists have been passive and silent throughout the war when the reality of their artistic expressions point to the contrary.

Leave a Comment