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

Ismail al-Shaikhly

إسماعيل الشيخلي
Ismail al-Shaikhly
al-Chekli; al-Sheikhly; al-Chekhli

Born in 1924 in Baghdad, Iraq; died in 24 January 2002 in Baghdad, Iraq.​

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Ismail al-Shaikhly


​Ismail al-Shaikhly is considered an early pioneer of Iraqi modern art. He developed a unique style that resulted from a diverse set of influences. His mature works are instantly recognizable for their abstracted human figures, vibrant color combinations, and obscured backgrounds. However, there were many iterations of al-Shaikhly's favored subject matter, Iraqi village life, over the course of his career. Like others of his generation of artists, al-Shaikhly was a versatile painter who experimented with various modes of representation. As a result, his oeuvre exhibits a range of stylistic references and negotiations.  

Al-Shaikhly was educated at the Institute of Fine Art in Baghdad and was a member of the first graduating class of 1945. At the institute, the artist studied under Faiq Hassan, one of the leading figures in the Iraqi art world, and was his most gifted student. After graduating, al-Shaikhly became its first alumnus to study abroad, attending the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1951. He returned to Baghdad and was an influential member of the Pioneers Group, an artist society founded by Faiq Hassan. He became the group's leader in 1962 after Hassan stepped down. Al-Shaikhly was also a founding member of the Society of Iraqi Plastic Artists and joined the Iraqi Artist Society. Professionally, his most distinguished position was as the director general of the Directorate of Plastic Arts in Baghdad. 

Al-Shaikhly's early work reflects the influence of his mentor, Faiq Hassan, and the artistic production of these two painters has often been compared. Indeed, there are striking similarities between the work of the master and pupil. They both favored the Iraqi countryside and village life as subject matter. Likewise, the quaint, impressionistic treatment of people and nature in each of their canvases hints at a close didactic relationship between the artists. However, this resemblance characterizes an early period in al-Shaikhly's career, after which he would venture out into his own artistic realm. His mature style is abstract, demonstrating the artist's interest in form and color at the willing expense of narrative but not subject matter.           

Women figure prominently as a central theme in al-Shaikhly's work. Throughout his various experiments with representations, he remained faithful to the feminine form. He seems to have been interested in the exploration of a singular subject, perhaps desiring to unleash its aesthetic potential. It is significant that he selected a subject that has occupied artistic expression since the daybreak of humanity, the female body.

Oftentimes painting them in groupings, the artist's females gaze out at the viewer with pointed stares. Simplified with oval faces and generic bodies, they seem to be in various states of coming and going: to the mosque, to the souq, to some domestic chore. Yet they pause for the painter to capture their individual attitudes along with their homogenous shapes. There is a rhythm implied in the repetition of ovals, squares, and strong curved lines that reflects the pace of the women's daily lives, as well as the artist's interest in patterning within the Islamic ornamental tradition.

In the artist's more iconic paintings, produced in the last two decades of the twentieth century, the female groups move in and out of a fading background. His subjects seem to be wanderers in a hazy landscape, sometimes dotted with triangular shapes hinting at tent structures and sometimes obscured altogether. The women in these later works occupy huddled spaces, identifiable only by the Iraqi abaya draped over their bodies. Color occupies a premier place in each of these canvases as he reduces his figures to flesh-colored circles, bright rectangular bodies, and black coverings. These expressions are filled with kinetic energy. By virtue of the hurried brushstrokes and color highlights, the feminine forms seem to vibrate even as the background fades.  

Al-Shaikhly exhibited his work prodigiously throughout the world. He actively participated in Baghdadi exhibitions by the Pioneers and other artist organizations in which he was a part. Thus his work was highly visible domestically. Al-Shaikhly was also a part of several group exhibitions abroad and his work was displayed in cities like Paris, London, Ankara, Belgrade, Madrid, Jakarta, and Delhi.  In 1955 and 1958, al-Shaikhly's artwork toured counties like China, Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, and India. The artist's paintings were also widely appreciated in the Arab world as he exhibited in almost every Arab capital. Al-Shaikhly's works are held in the collections of Mathaf: The Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar and at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Art in Amman.


​1976​Against Discrimination, Baghdad, Iraq
​1974​Arab Biennial, Baghdad, Iraq
​1958​Contemporary Iraqi Art Tour: China, Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, former Yugoslavia
​1955​Contemporary Iraqi Art Tour: India
​1954 - 1956​Al-Mansour Club, Baghdad, Iraq
​1953​Exhibition in Alexandria, Egypt
​1952​All 22 exhibitions of the Pioneers, National Museum of Modern Art, Al-Riwaq Gallery, and the Institute of Fine Art, Baghdad, Iraq
​_____​Exhibition in Beirut, Lebanon
​1946​Exhibition of the Society of the Friends of Art, Baghdad, Iraq


Institute of Fine Art in Baghdad, the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Pioneers, Society of Iraqi Plastic Artists, Iraqi Artist Society, Women, abstraction, impressionist, landscape, village scenes.


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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Shabout, Nada, Wassan al-Khudairi and Deena Chalabi. Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art. Exhibition Catalogue. Doha and Milano: Skira Editore S. P. A and Qatar Museums Authority, 2010.


  • Title unknown, 1954 Lithograph on paper, 48 x 36.5 cm Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  • Title unknown, 1954 Lithograph on paper, 50.5 x 40 cm Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  • Title unknown, 1955 Lithograph on paper, 50.5 x 40 cm Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  • Title unknown, 1966 Oil on canvas, 46 x 53.5 cm Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  • Title unknown, n.d Medium and dimensions unknown Modern Art Iraq Archive, MAIA (
  • Title unknown, n.d Material and dimensions unknown Modern Art Iraq Archive, MAIA (