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

Jewad Selim

On Abstraction and Symbolism

Written by Dr. Nada Shabout

In his book Jewad Selim, the Artist and the Others, Iraqi artist, historian and theoretician Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925-2004) posed a question that effectively sums up Selim's short but poignant career. He asks, 'How could he [Selim] be concerned at once with local and global humanity in his art, and draw from various roots his relationship with his environment, that vast ocean, an objective relationship that does not denigrate the value of his local or global environment'.1

Al Said knew Selim well, having been the artist's student and close friend. Together in 1951 they formed one of Iraq's most prominent and significant art groups, Jama'et Baghdad lil Fen al-Hadith (The Baghdad Modern Art Group),2 whose objectives and concerns exemplified the values and aspects Al Said raises in his enquiry above. In the group's manifesto, the words and ideas expressed by Al Said reflected what Selim strove to achieve throughout his career to communicate visually.

As leader of the group, Selim emphasised promoting the notion of istilham al-turath – seeking inspiration from tradition – and developed an artistic vision which was historico-cultural as well as modern.3 Istilham is a concept that advocates mediation between the past and the present; a negotiation of heritage and of tradition, toward an evolvement of new contemporary aesthetics. Istilham perceives a spiritual relationship between the past and the present regardless of temporal distance. Al Said argued that, 'Istilham is establishing a new spatial and temporal relationship with our surroundings'.4 For Selim, however, it had its base in the humanistic tradition.

The group aspired to define a unique artistic direction that was capable of negotiating the national and international at the same time, and in order to realize such vision, it was imperative to find an artistic continuity with their own traditions. They declared in their manifesto: 'We will build that which was destroyed in the realm of pictorial art in Iraq since the thirteenth-century school of Yahya Al-Wasiti and we will connect the chain that was broken when Baghdad fell to the hands of the Mongols.'5 The group defined their innovative direction as 'A new trend in painting [that] will solve the [artistic] identity problem in our contemporary awakening by following the footsteps of the thirteenth-century [Iraqi] painters. The new generation of artists finds the beginning of a guiding light in the early legacy of their forefathers.'6

Selim described his own style – lines, forms, and softly muted colors – as having its roots in the art of his ancestors going back to 2000 BCE.7 His belief in the possibility of continuity based on selective appropriation and interpretation of history, was part of the ideals of the Baghdad Modern Art Group. Nevertheless, Selim considered himself a man of his age and found no conflict between being a Modernist and being an Iraqi, with all the associated history that identity carries. 'To the moderns, I am an Iraqi but I am also a man of the twentieth century,' he said. 'I could wear an abaya but it wouldn't make me an Abassid, would it?'8

Moreover, Selim was as pragmatic as he was romantic. He was an activist, a cultural agent who professed as his duty, to exact change. Selim's wife Lorna Selim writes that he 'tried to define in artistic terms the emerging national aspirations of his country and in that his work undoubtedly reflects the feelings of the time…He set out to prove that they could be proud of their ancient heritage and did not need to feel inferior to anyone'.9

Through his work at the Directorate of Antiquities in Baghdad (1940–1945), Selim was able to study and appreciate the aesthetics of Mesopotamian art. The critic Jabra I. Jabra designated the decade of the 1940s as one of discovery for Selim. He states, 'During this exuberant decade of his life, he discovered Al-Wasiti and Arab art, Sumerian and Assyrian sculpture, colour in Impressionism and Post- Impressionism. Also, during this decade he [Selim] was discovered by the Polish artists, and the English painter Kenneth Wood. All of them had a profound effect on his life and mature work.'10

Selim's search for visual continuity led him to explore the history and folk culture of Iraqi society. Trained on a government scholarship first in Paris (1938–1939), then Rome (1939–1940) and after World War II, in England (1946–1948), Selim admired and appreciated the work of Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. After his return to Baghdad, he headed the Department of Sculpture at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. It was here that Selim created symbols signifying an Iraqi artistic identity through intellectualising folk motifs, and experimenting with the harmonization between abstraction as a modern style, and abstraction as a traditional style. He formed a synthesis between abstraction of modern Western techniques, and that of an ancient technique and style which embodies the spirit of the Islamic and all of its connotations. Thus, Selim's naturalism of his earlier work gave way to the principles of abstraction, with a geometric reductionist and minimalist approach that allowed him to realise his meaning of istilham al-turath. Along with naturalism, he abandoned all traces of linear and mathematical perspective.

Selim's paintings in this exhibition illustrate the various influences which contributed to his contemporary artistic identity: namely the Mesopotamian, Islamic, and Western modern art elements. These influences are seen as an amalgamation of thoughts that form a coherent and balanced totality of parts, that parallel his understanding of the cosmopolitan culture of Baghdad. The various paintings present Selim's development through a series of experiments which he engaged in: toward finding the balance between legacy and innovation, and between the intuitive value of mythical thought, and logical value of the decorative. They are executed in a linear style, reducing shapes to their elemental geometrical outlines.

Selim's nephew, the artist Rashad Selim, indirectly credits the work of the Baghdad Modern Art Group for creating a menu of classical iconography of identity, which resonates in contemporary Iraqi art:

'Starting with the depiction of eyes, more eyes and what eyes! Sumerian statuettes depicting worshippers hold in their wide open gaze the legacy of man questing into the unknown, for significance beyond his essential aloneness within creation. Ruins and dusts as well as the geometry of human industry that survives the layered weight of history, in the traditions of popular culture.'11

Essential in Selim's iconography is the visual rhythm created by the duality of two basic shapes – the circle and square, or their components. Duality, a concept present in all of his work, conveys the global and eternal totality of the human experience, both as a method of compositional organisation and as relaying psychological value. It also creates visual dynamism through contrast; be it in the pairing of primordial elements of male and female, the consciousness and unconsciousness, straight lines and curvilinear lines, or decorative and representational elements.

Selim entitled his paintings of the 1950s Baghdadiat, in reference to the so-called Abbasid Baghdad School of painting, and to an occurrence of contemporary revitalisation in Baghdad which he perceived as transpiring at that time. Baghdadiat thus at once forges a historical continuity and asserts the contemporaneity of his expression. They consisted of three groups of paintings: one having its source in folk life and traditions, the second in vernacular artifacts, and the third in the innocence and joy of children.12

His paintings of the 1950s are also dubbed hilaliat (crescent-like), as Selim abstracts both his ideas and forms into crescent shapes, to further demonstrate the tensions within the concept of duality. The frontality of the faces of his figures and big almond-shaped eyes, formed by two horizontally joint crescents, negotiate Sumerian traditions. The repetition of shapes, curvilinear and angular, creates a rhythm akin to that of Islamic arabesques. In reality, his non-linear approach to repetition implements an important aspect of Islamic aesthetics, based on interaction and juxtaposition of diverse units. The duality of past and present is further presented at times by the tension between the two-dimensionality of the figure and the three-dimensionality of some of the objects in the scene.

Selim's portrait A Man and a Woman, 1953 (also named 'A Farmer and his Wife' by Jabra in his book Jewad Selim and the Monument of Freedom and 'A Groom and His Bride' by Nouri al-Rawi), is considered one of his most important works by Al Said, exemplifying the artist's growing interest in ancient Iraqi heritage, and reinterpreted in a contemporary setting.13 The subject shows a close-up of a man and a woman, which as cited by Abbas al-Saraf, recalls the subject of Sumerian sculptures like 'Abu and his Wife'. Most notably it features the couple's Sumerian like eyes but they are dressed in attire referencing traditional Baghdadi dress of the 1950s.

A recurring theme in both Selim's work, and that of other artists of the time, is 'motherhood'. The symbolism embodied in motherhood creates a link between the past, present and future. It is a direct reference to the ancient concept of fertility seen across various visual manifestations of goddesses, and its relationship to the land on the one hand, and to modern ideas of nationalism and the 'motherland' on the other. It signifies homeland and cultural roots.

In his sculpture Motherhood 1954, Selim furthers his negotiation of hilaliat within the theme of motherhood. In fact, Al Said argues that the concept of motherhood in Selim's work transcends the subject matter to the work in its own right. This is expressed in the images of the crescent and circle, in reference to ancient symbolism: the circle (feminine), such as the sun, the moon or a womb, as a symbol of the universe; and the square (masculine) as a symbol of a house.14 In Selim's work, motherhood is transformed by taking the form of a circle or crescent.

Moreover, while figures generally dominate his compositions, emphasising the centrality of humanity in his work, they are equally transformed into objects of aesthetic value. In Woman and a Sewing Machine, the sewing machine, the woman and the rooster she is carrying all appear as equal parts of the same pattern. The figures in Children Playing or Baghdadiat, which further explore the coherence of Selim's experiments, are abstracted and ornamented into linear patterns.

Selim, a painter and sculptor, eventually relinquished painting in favour of sculpture after having painted his most mature works in the late 1950s. Selim's ideas, exploration and experience culminated in his last masterpiece, which became a landmark of and for Baghdad: Nasb al-Hurriyah (Monument of Freedom), a work commissioned by the new Iraqi military regime in 1959 to celebrate the revolution.15

A bas-relief mural in bronze, the work measures fifty by eight metres in total, and its twenty-five connected figures, divided into ten units, visually narrate the revolution and the events that surrounded it. Equally, the units resemble the letters of an Arabic verse in their movement and flow. In this work, he succeeded in merging the linear quality of Arabic characters and stylised forms of Sumeria and Babylon, with modern Western styles. The narrative is organised in several interconnected groups – in turn expressing themes of injustice, resistance, solidarity, hope and ambition, and is portrayed with symbolic realism. The humanistic composition juxtaposes several familiar concepts in his oeuvre: eternal calamity, motherhood, and fertility, and is as timeless and universal in its iconography as Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937). Selim died before the mural was completed.

In his work Selim did not simply adapt modern abstraction to Islamic or ancient representations. Instead, he succeeded in negotiating innovative visual iconography that addressed and theorised the principles of abstraction, ornamentation, mythology and symbolism throughout the history of art, but he was also capable of expressing his contemporary self and realities. His discourse was confrontational, both national and modern, forcing the public to engage with the new traditions he and his fellow artists were creating. His work forced his contemporaries to find renewal within historical roots. And this explains why the legacy of Jewad Selim became much larger than his short career.

In homage to Selim, the Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi abstracted Selim's life and career in a manner akin to Selim's visual creations. Azzawi wrote:

'You draw on paper crescents, signs that led the traveler to your heart, arousing hope in Baghdad who invited you into her mornings like a woman full of desire. You called your pictures by her name, like a lover who searches in the corners of memory for friendly signs, a square or a rectangle, a suggestion of a palm tree or a coffee pot, or the faces of tired women in love, hovering between al-Risafa and al-Karkh, between the beginning and the end of a dream. Is the blue in your Baghdad pictures the key to heaven, or is it the far reaches of the Naskhi inscription on the Kufa gate? Is the square or diamond a simple ornament or is it a sign pointing to the Abbasid palace? Is it that you are Gilgamesh, having lost his way and stumbled into Abbasid times, or is it that you are al-Hallaj calling out in Baghdad that we should heed the sacredness of colour? Al-Wasiti accompanied you for years narrating to you the stories of al-Harith bin Hamam, he drew in yellow, red and green gilded plants and people….You allowed yourself months to create your mural, the key of your eternal love for Baghdad. But suddenly came death. I call this death the beginning of your glorious presence. I do not remember your absence. We recall the time against death and cherish your creativity.'16

1 Shakir Hassan Al Said, Jewad Selim, the Artist and the Others, p. 9.
2 See Al Said, Fussul min Tarikh al-Haraka al-Tashkiliah fi al-Iraq 1, pp. 158–178; and Maysaloun Faraj, ed., Strokes of Genius.
3 The verb Istilham is derived from Ilham: inspiration; instinct, which is derived from the root lahm: to inspire; to pray.
4 Al Said, ed., Hiwar al-Fan al-Tashkili (The Dialogue of Plastic Arts), Abd al-Hamid Shouman Foundation-Darat al Funun, Amman, Jordan, 1995, pp. 49–50.
5 Manifesto of Baghdad Modern Art Group. As quoted in May Muzaffar, 'Iraq' in Wijdan, ed., Contemporary Art From The Islamic World, p.166. The Abbasid painter Yahya Al-Wasiti lived in Baghdad around the twelfth to thirteenth century and headed one of the Baghdad Schools of Art. The most famous of his work is his celebrated illustrations for the book of al-Hariri, the Maqamat (Assemblies) in 1237, a series of anecdotes of social satire written by al-Hariri, the head of the police, in the city of Basra, Iraq. Al-Wasiti's work, viewed as a study of human behaviour, served as a model for the members of the group.
6 Manifesto of Baghdad Modern Art Group. As quoted in ibid., p. 161.
7 Tom Streithorts, Jewad and Lorna Selim, in al-Kulliyah: The Middle East Forum 33 no. 1 (January 1958), pp. 20-22.
8 Ibid., p. 21.
9 Al-Khamis, 'With Ulrike al-Khamis, Lorna Selim Remembers', in Faraj, ed., Strokes of Genius, p. 43.
10 Translated by author. Ibrahim Nasr Allah, ed., Jabra Ibrahim Jabra: Art and the Artists. Selected Writings in Art Criticism, Darat al Funun & al-Muasasa al-Arabiyya lil Dirasat wa al Nashr, Amman & Beirut, 2000, p. 104.
11 Rashad Selim, Diaspora, Departure and Remains, in Maysaloun Faraj, ed., Strokes of Genius, p. 55.
12 Afif Bahnassi, Ruwad al-Fan al-Hadith fi al-Bilad al-Arabiyah (The Avant-Garde Artists of Modern Art in the Arab World), Dar Al-Raed Al-Arabi, Beirut, 1985, p. 126.
13 Al Said, Jewad Selim, p. 123.
14 Sumerian fertility symbolism connected to the dependency of the agricultural cycle on the lunar calendar. See Al Said, Fussul min Tarikh al-Haraka al-Tashkiliah fi al-Iraq part 1, p. 211.
15 It was the first public monument in Iraq to be built by an Iraqi artist. On January 23, 2004 a renovation and restoration operation was initiated by the interim culture minister Mufid al Jazairi.
16 Al-Azzawi, Introduction to Homage to Jewad Selim, limited edition, London, 1989.

 

This essay was originally published in the exhibition catalogue Forever Now: Five Anecdotes from the Permanent Collection. First published in 2012 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, Doha. Qatar. All rights reserved © Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and Qatar Museums, Doha. Edited by Dr. Nada Shabout.