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

Kadhim Haidar

كاظم حيدر
Kadhim Haidar
Kadhem; Kadim; Kazem; Haydar; Hayder

​Born in 1932 in Baghdad, Iraq; died 1985 in Baghdad, Iraq.

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Kadhim Haidar


As a child growing up in the Fadhl neighborhood of Baghdad, Haidar loved to draw. When the artist Mohammad Saleh Zaki visited his elementary school and instructed the students to draw a fish, Haidar drew a fish in a peculiar way. Asked about the way in which he drew the fish, he explained to Zaki that the fish was not yet dead.

Haidar studied literature at the Higher Institute of Teachers [Dar al-Mu'allimeen], Baghdad, and at the same time enrolled in night classes at the Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad. He graduated from both institutes in 1957. In 1959, he went to London to study at the Central College of the Arts (now Central St. Martins), where he received degrees in painting, lithography and theater design. Upon his return to Baghdad in 1962, he began teaching at the Institute of Fine Arts.   

During the 1950s, Haidar was associated with the group of artists known as the Pioneers, and as with other artists in that group, such as Mahmoud Sabri, his work largely focused on the figure of the urban laborer. Rendering the laborer with a superhuman musculature, his arms and legs almost chiseled in hard, clean lines, Haidar built into his modeling a mythic dimension that cast the laborer in a heroic struggle for justice. In paintings such as He Told Us Everything As It Happened (1957), and The Struggle of the Hero (1958), where the figure of the laborer is projected onto the scene of the Battle of Karbala, Haidar explicitly portrayed the laborer as a political and not simply economic subject, in reference to the protests of workers, often against the high cost of living in Baghdad, that were violently suppressed by the government.

In the aftermath of the first Ba'th coup in February 1963, Haidar began work on a series of paintings that drew on imagery from the street performances that annually mourn the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn. He employed both modern techniques of design and aesthetic principles such as repetition derived from the art of ancient Mesopotamia to redesign the banners, personages, and horses that animate the processions and re-enactments of the Battle of Karbala, where the Imam Husayn was killed along with the Prophet's family for refusing to acknowledge the right of Yezid to the caliphate. So reconfigured in painting, the imagery neither depicted the ritual performances nor did it depict the historical events of the battle. Rather, having undergone a kind of semiotic abstraction, in which Haidar's aesthetic modifications neutralized their ritual and historical meanings, the imagery from the mourning celebrations was made available as a vocabulary with which Haidar narrated the struggle of an unnamed martyr. Following the use of poetry in the mourning rituals for the Imam Husayn, he also composed a poem that recounted this struggle in modern verse, each painting in the series corresponding to a line of the poem. Though no longer referring to the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn, the vocabulary of forms employed in the paintings, coupled with the poem, nevertheless sustained in the modern artwork the same sense of pathos and the same claim to justice borne by the imagery in the mourning rituals. The sequence of thirty-two canvases, of varying sizes, was exhibited in April 1965 at the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad under the title, The Epic of the Martyr [Malhamat ash-Shaheed].

In drawing on the ritual imagery of the popular celebrations of Husayn's martyrdom, Haidar saw himself as continuing an earlier attempt to go beyond the technical limits of the artwork by bringing something into it from outside.  His first attempt to do this had been in The Porter [al-Himal] (1955), where he portrayed an urban laborer carrying the trunk of a date palm by affixing to the canvas the trunk of an actual date palm. Inserting the date palm into the painting collapsed the representational distance between the artwork and the world, between the image of the laborer suffering under the weight of his load and the real world of modern Baghdad in which laborers suffered. Similarly, in The Epic of the Martyr, the transposition of imagery from the mourning celebrations into painting – even as that transposition suspended the historical and ritual reference of the imagery – collapsed the borders between the artwork and the mourning celebrations, with the effect that the paintings came to be suffused with the pathos and testimony of the ritual remembrance of the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn. In the artwork, however, that pathos and testimony had to do not with the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn but with the experience of the first Ba'th coup in 1963.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, Haidar continued to develop the theme of testimony and martyrdom, though he did so in ways that went beyond the ritual imagery of the mourning celebrations to explore the mythological space produced by those acts of remembrance. The narrative content of these later paintings seemed to push their figurative form into a particular kind of abstraction. In addition, like many Iraqi artists including Dia al-Azzawi, Rafa al-Nasiri, Ismail Fattah, and Ala Bashir, Haidar produced work in response to the massacre of Palestinians at the Tel az-Zaatar refugee camp in 1976. Some of that work was shown at the Second Biennial of Arab Art in Rabat later that year. He also designed costumes and sets for a number of theater productions directed by Sami Abdul Hamid and Qasim Mohammad. Though he had designed his first set much earlier, in 1950, when Haqqi al-Shibli asked him to paint backdrops for his production of Julius Caesar, it was only after Haidar met Sami Abdul Hamid in London, where both of them were studying, that he became seriously involved in theater design.  

In 1967, Haidar participated in the az-Zawiya Group, a short-lived, one-exhibition-long reaction on the part of the faculty of the Institute of Fine Arts, of which he was a member, to the activities of their students, who had begun to push for more radical innovations in technique. That conflict over technique was suspended by the defeat of the Arab states in 1967 in the Six-Day War with Israel, which raised a set of new questions about how the practice of art could interface with regional politics. In response to the debates about both form and content that ensued, in 1971 Haidar arranged an exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art of work by the young artists, Waleed Sheet, Faisal Laibi, Nu'man Hadi, Silah Jihad, and Aqil Abd al-Rizk under the title of the Academicians [al-Akaadeemiyyoun]. In a curatorial text introducing the artists' work, Haidar sought to reclaim the concept of the 'academic' to refer to a practice of art in which 'the line is informed, planned out in advance with knowledge' – that is, a practice in which aesthetic form contains a hermeneutic content. Renewing the concept of the academic was also, he acknowledged, an attempt to articulate what he had done almost a decade earlier in The Epic of the Martyr. 

In addition to teaching at the Institute of Fine Arts, which became the Academy of Fine Arts when it was integrated into the University of Baghdad in 1968, and authoring a textbook, Lines and Colors [at-Takhteet wa al-Alwaan], Haidar held a number of leadership positions in both national and regional art organizations. He served as Vice-President of the Society of Iraqi Artists from 1968 to 1973. In 1975 he succeeded Khalid al-Jadir as President of the Union of Arab Artists.

In 1983, Haidar was diagnosed with leukemia and went to London for treatment. Though his strength returned for a few months, the cancer persisted, and Haidar was out of money. In order to help him fund a second round of treatment, Dia Azzawi, who was then the artistic director at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London, arranged for Haidar to show some work at the Centre. In addition to showing work from the previous few years, Haidar produced for the exhibition a series of oil paintings that interpreted his experience of his dying body. Thrown outside his body by the illness, he saw his body as something at once organic and mechanical, as a landscape of arteries and veins, pipes and branches exposed to the open air and merging with the clinical world of tubes and flowers that surrounded him in the hospital. 

The exhibition brought to the Centre members of the Iraqi community who had for political reasons hitherto stayed away, and every work sold. Haidar was able to undergo a second round of treatment. He returned to Baghdad, where he continued to work, producing sketches and watercolor studies for large paintings. He passed away a few months later. 

Selected Exhibitions​

Solo Exhibition, Iraqi Cultural Centre, London, United Kingdom
198Peinture Irakienne Contemporaine, Iraqi Cultural Centre, Paris, France
1978International Art for Palestine, Arab University, Beirut, Lebanon
1977 Iraqi Cultural Week, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar
____ Iraqi Contemporary Art, Iraqi Cultural Centre, London, United Kingdom
1976Artists against Racism, International Artists Association, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
____Second Arab Art Biennial, Rabat, Morocco
____Art Irakien Contemporain, Musée de Arte Moderne de la ville de Paris, France
1974​Sixteenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Iraqi Artists, Baghdad, Iraq                                                                                    ​   
____  First Arab Art Biennial, Baghdad, Iraq
1973Gallery 3, Baghdad, Iraq
____   Solo Exhibition, Gallery 3, Baghdad, Iraq
1971Contemporary Iraqi Art, Mirbad Poetry Festival, Basra, Iraq
____ The Academicians, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
1970  National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
1968National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
1967 With Valentinos Charalambous at the National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
____  Az-Zawiya Group, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
1966 Carreras Cravan "A" Arab Art Exhibition, traveling exhibition, Cairo, Manama, Kuwait, Baghdad, Amman, Damascus, Beirut, London, Paris, Rome
1965Contemporary Iraqi Art, traveling exhibition, Sursock Museum. Rome, Budapest, Vienna, Madrid, London, and Beirut
____ Eight Annual Exhibition of the Society of Iraqi Artists, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
____  Gallery One, Beirut, Lebanon
1964  Seventh Annual Exhibition of the Society of Iraqi Artists, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
1958 Exhibition of the Rejected, Union of Iraqi Women, Baghdad, Iraq
1957Baghdad Exhibition, Nadi Mansour, Baghdad, Iraq
____ Pioneers, Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, Iraq
1956 Pioneers, Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, Iraq
____  Nadi Mansur, Baghdad, Iraq
____   Young Artists of the Near East, traveling exhibition in the United States of America
1954Solo exhibition, Higher Institute of Teachers, Baghdad, Iraq
1953  Solo exhibition, Higher Institute of Teachers, Baghdad, Iraq
1949 Solo exhibition at al-Markaziyya Secondary School, Baghdad, Iraq​


Modern art in Iraq, the Pioneers/ar-Ruwaad, art and politics.


1977The Epic of Gilgamesh (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid)
____ Al-Mutanabbi (Adel Kadhim) (dir. Ibrahim Jalal)
Al-Khan (Yusuf al-A​ni)
1973Hamlet Arabiyyan (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid)
1967Soura Jadida (Yusuf al-Ani) (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid)
____ Al-Kharaba (Yusuf al-Ani) (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid and Qasim Muhammad)
____ Al-Nakhle wa al-Jiran (dir. Qasim Muhammad)
____ Baghdad al-Azl bayna al-Jad wa al-hazl (dir. Qasim Muhammed)
1965  The Merchant of Venice (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid)
 Antigone (Jean Anouilh) (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid)
The Glass Menagerie (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid)
L'Aigle à deux têtes (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid)
Al-Shariyya (written by Yusuf al-Ani, dir. Qasim Mohammad)
1964  The Treasures of Granada (Geraldine Sekis) (dir. Sami Abdul Hamid)​​


Abdul Hamid, Sami. "Lawla Kadhim Hayder lamaa 'ariftu dawra at-Tasmeem fi al-'ardhi al-Massrahi," [If not for Kadhim Hayder, I would not have learned the role of design in theater] in Tajribati fi al-massrah [My Experiences in Theater]. Baghdad: Dar ash-Shu'oun at-Thaqafiyyah al-'amma, 2000, 34-40.
Al-Azzawi, Dhiya. "Kadhim Haidar," Nsus 1, no. 1, 1994.
––––––––.  "as-Sitinaat: Izdihaar al-wa'ay at-tashkeeli" [The Sixties: the Flourishing of Artistic Consciousness], Faradis 5, no. 4, 1992. 
Al-Ghasani, Anwar. "Kadhim Hayder fi Malhamat ash-Shaheed," ِِِath-Thawra al-Arabiyya, 7 May 1965.
Ali, Maureen. "The Powerful Art of Kadhim Haider," Ur no. 1, 1985.
Al Said, Shaker Hassan. Fusoul min Taareekh al-Fann at-Tashkili fil al-'Iraq [Chapters from the History of the Visual Art Movement in Iraq]. Volume Two. Baghdad: Ministry of Culture and Information, 1988.
––––––––.  Al-Bayanaat al-Fanniyya fi al-'Iraq [Art Manifestos in Iraq]. Baghdad: Ministry of Information, 1973.
Al-Zayr, Ibrahim. "Ma'ridh Kaamil 'an Ma'saa' al-Husayn," ath-Thawra al-Arabiyya, 9 May 1965.
Haidar, Kadhim. “At-Takhteet wa al-Alwaan.” Baghdad: The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Baghdad University, 1984.​
Hayder, Kadhim. "Kadhem Haydar: Akhafa al-majhul wa al-uslub hua ana," Alif Ba, 1984. [reprinted in 'Iraqiyyoun, weekly supplement to A​l-Mada, Vol 8, no 2232, August 25, 2011].
Hayder, Najm. "Indimaa yursamu al-mawt," 'Iraqiyyoun [weekly supplement to Al-Mada], vol 8, no 2232, August 25, 2011.


  • Sunrise/Sunset, 1983 Oil on wooden panel, 80 x 100 cm Collection of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah
  • The Martyr’s Epic, 1965 Oil on canvas, 91 x 127 cm Collection of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah
  • Il Nous a Dit Comment Cela s’est Passé (He Told Us How It Happened), 1957 Oil on canvas, 96 x 65 cm Collection of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah
  • Martyr’s Epic, 1965 Oil on canvas, 96 x 125 cm Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  • Title unknown, 1961 Watercolor on paper, 53 x 34 cm Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  • Title unknown, 1953 Watercolor on paper, 29.5 x 42 cm Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  • The Martyr's Epic, 1965 Oil on canvas, 96 x 65 cm Courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation
  • Il nous a dit comment cela s'est passé, 1957 Oil on canvas, 91 x 127 cm Collection of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah


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