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Artists' Index
Encyclopedia of Modern Art and Arab World
موســــوعة الفـن الحديـــث والعالــم العربـــي
Artists' Index

Atta Sabri

عطا صبري
Atta Sabri

​Born in 1913 in Kirkuk, Iraq; died on 3 January 1987 in Baghdad, Iraq.​​​

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Atta Sabri


Atta Sabri is considered one of the early pioneers of Iraqi modern art, honored alongside Faiq Hassan and Hafidh al-Droubi. In many ways, Sabri's career mirrors that of his contemporaries. He was educated in the arts abroad and his works show a blending of western art techniques with an Iraqi essence. The artist is well-known for his pleasing representations of the Iraqi countryside. Done with a subtle skill, Sabri's canvases exhibit the beauty of the landscape and the customs of its inhabitants.    

Sabri completed his early education at the Dar al-Mualimin or the "House of Teachers" in Baghdad in 1934. He then went on to teach at local schools. Like other artists of his generation, Sabri won a government-sponsored scholarship to pursue the arts in Europe. He travelled to Rome to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti in 1937, but was forced to return home at the outbreak of World War II. During the years between 1940 and 1944, Sabri was employed at the Department of Antiquities in Baghdad. In 1946, Sabri was again presented with the opportunity to study art abroad and finished his BFA in London at Goldsmiths College and the Slade School. After graduating in 1950, he held a professorship at the Institute of Fine Art in Baghdad, among other institutions. Sabri taught until 1960 and later became Inspector of Fine Arts.

Coupled with Sabri's institutional affiliations, he was also an active member of several important art groups. He was a founding member of the Society of the Friends of Art and was active in the Society of Iraqi Plastic Artists. He was made a fellow of the latter in 1972. Sabri was one of the pioneer artists to be showcased at the Iraqi artist pavilion during the 1931 Industrial and Agricultural Fair in Baghdad. This was a watershed exhibition for Atta Sabri and his colleagues as it exposed the public to contemporary Iraqi art for the first time. Sabri also participated in the 1950 First Iraqi Art Show in London. In 1973, the painter was invited by the German university, Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, to contribute to their craft conference. Subsequently, Sabri contributed to several exhibitions at the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad, especially between 1977 and 1980. In 1979 the museum hosted a major retrospective of Sabri's work.

The painter's style remained fairly consistent with a blending of realist and impressionistic qualities. The quiet, blooming crannies in and around Baghdad were Sabri's favored subjects. He also painted sweeping vistas that often contrasts a rocky outcrop with a smooth valley. He rarely focused on individuals, unless composing a portrait. Instead, he centered his canvases on the qualities of the Iraqi environment varying his brushstrokes to reflect movement in the scenery.

When Sabri does focus on human activity the scenes are usually composed as windows into timeless traditions. The viewer stands aloof while passively watching a group of figures interact. Whether it is a cluster of women bathing or musicians playing, a sense of local custom is conveyed through distinctive dress and a ritualized treatment of the portrayed event. There is an overall simplicity and serenity in Sabri's work that can be seen in a number of artists from his generation who were seeking to engage the natural aesthetics of their homeland. 

A number of Atta Sabri's pieces, including his lively rendering of musicians and dancers, were looted from the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad. The artist's son Salam Atta Sabri, the director of the museum and an artist in his own right, has dedicated himself to raising awareness of the fate of these works and is working towards their recovery. 


​1979​​Retrospective of his work, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
​1977 - 1980​Major contributor to several exhibitions at the National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
​1957​The Baghdad Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Al-Mansur Club, Baghdad, Iraq
​1950​First Iraqi Art Show in London, United Kingdom
​1943 ​A Permanent Collection of Paintings and Drawings made in Iraq, Directorate General of Antiquities, Baghdad, Iraq
​1931​Industrial and Agricultural Fair, Baghdad, Iraq

Awards and Honors

​1973Invited to participate in the Craft Conference of Martin-Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany


Dar al-Mualimin ("House of Teachers"), Accademia di Belle Arti, Department of Antiquities, Goldsmiths College, the Slade School, Society of the Friends of Art, Society of Iraqi Plastic Artists, Industrial and Agricultural Fair, National Museum of Modern Art.


Ali, Wijdan. Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity. Gainsville: Florida University Press, 1997.

"Atta Sabri." Last modified January 2014. 

Bahrani, Zainab and Nada Shabout. Modernism and Iraq. New York: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University Press, 2009.

Faraj, Maysaloun, ed. Strokes of genius: Contemporary Iraqi art. London: Saqi Books, 2001.

Inati, Shams C, ed. Iraq: Its History, People, and Politics. New York: Humanity Books, 2003.

Jabra, Jabra I. The Grass Roots of Iraqi Art. Jersey: Wasit Graphic and Publishing Limited, 1983.

Mudaffar, May. "Iraq." In Contemporary Art from the Islamic World. Edited by Wijdan Ali. Amman: The Royal Society of Fine Arts, Essex, England: Scorpion Publishing, 1989.

Further Reading

Merzaban, Daliah, ed. Re:Orient: Invesitgating Modernism in the Arab World 1950s-'70sUnited Arab Emirates: Barjeel Art Foundation, 2013.

Modern Art Iraq Archive. Last Modified January 2014.

Pocock, Charles. Modern Iraqi Art: A Collection. Dubai: Meem Gallery, 2013.

Romaya, Bassam, "Iraq and the Question of Aesthetics." In International Congress of Aesthetics (2007), 1-15.

Saad, Qassim. "Contemporary Iraqi Art: Origins and Development." In Scope: Contemporary Research Topics (Art & Design, 2008) 3, 50-54.

Shabout, Nada. Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art. Exhibition Catalogue. Doha: Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar Museum Authority, 2010.