Written by May Muzaffar
Salim al-Dabbagh, the renowned Iraqi artist, appears to be quiet and given more to silence, similar to his abstract paintings of black and white – through which he reveals much, with a minimum use of details. Leisurely and thoughtful in producing his art works, his incessant output rarely departs from his artistic abstraction of shape and colour.
I sit in front of a small sized, oil on panel painting of 2005,1 by Salim al-Dabbagh: a grey background moving upwards, forming a mass that gets darker and darker. On both sides one notices some strokes of faint red. It is a composition suggesting a natural scene, mysterious and confusing at first glance, but that perhaps with deep contemplation in attempts to explore its depths, it may get clarified. The details that manifest through such explorations, may lead to many connotations: a cube floating in space, a tent perhaps, floating on the white foreground, a light streaming through a gap between its two poles.
Such perplexity manifests itself in almost all of al-Dabbagh's paintings, it allures the eye with its charm, the potential of its presence and the slender lines. The mysterious world of al-Dabbagh represents existing realities, mostly in black and white, by using volume in equivalence to vacuum. His paintings maintain a profound silence; a silence impregnated with speech, although sometimes a disturbing one.
Salim al-Dabbagh (born 1941), is among the gifted Iraqi painters who emerged in the mid-1960s. He is one of a generation of artists for whom a work of art became a cultural pursuit. A generation that lifted up the modern artistic movement in Iraq and enhanced its progress, with their courageous experimentalism and audacious creativity.
From his outset, Salim intended to adopt a rebellious attitude towards traditional painterly styles. He was one of the 'Innovators', a group of young artists (founded in 1965), whose members stood out for their adoption of modern techniques and abstract styles reflecting innermost thoughts. Salim is quite economic in his use of colour and shape to the extent that it drove him to cling to symbolic abstraction. He was one of the first Iraqi artists to train in printmaking achieving brilliant works. And though his production is rather limited in this field, the influence of graphic art on his oil compositions seems obvious.
In a personal letter addressed to me, Salim al-Dabbagh admits that in his childhood, he paid no attention to painting. He later became drawn to this vast world through some photographs that he accidentally saw showing some Vincent Van Gogh paintings. According to him, he immediately became mesmerised by their expressive charm. Salim says he was a young boy, still in the first year of intermediary school, when Van Gogh became his first 'master', and this great love set him to follow a new path without knowing where it would lead him.
Al-Dabbagh was living in Mosul when he decided to study art. In 1958 he moved to Baghdad to become a student in the Institute of Fine Arts; the only acknowledged art institute in Iraq. After completing his studies at the Institute, he entered the newly opened Academy of Fine Art (est.1962), and became one of the first generation of students.
At the Institute of Fine Arts – the first and foremost training ground for Iraqi artists – al-Dabbagh had been trained by the great Iraqi masters: Faieq Hassan, Jewad Selim, Khalid Al Rahhal, Ismail Al Sheikhly, and others. By the time he attended the academy, most of the masters who were holding classes in the Institute moved to teach there. The academy also benefitted from the expertise of European masters, and artists themselves, led by the Polish Roman Artymowski, who added the arts of engraving and printmaking to the curriculum, and the Yugoslavian Burkow Lazsky, who was known for his expertise in mural painting. Both artists were modernists, and they had a powerful influence on the students leading them towards new methods of expression, drawing them away from classical and realistic methods.
The 1960s in Baghdad was a decade characterized by the intensity of cultural and political conflicts, particularly after the developments brought about by the 1958 Coup d'Etat, which toppled the monarchy and established the republican regime. Iraq then became open to the entire world – socialist and liberal idealisms, East and West. As a result, conflicting debates emerged in discussing, among other issues of political and non-political topics, the nature of art and the artists attitude towards art and life: What does he or she paint? How? And for whom? This wide opening to socialist theories in opposition to liberal ideas enflamed the debates among intellectuals, scholars and artists, and found expression on the pages of newspapers and periodicals during these few years of a transitional period. In reviewing those debates, according to what was published in local newspapers, reveals the disparity of opinions and the intensity of internal conflicting trends, foremost of which was the call to adopt the freedom of artistic expression. And the call to find new ways of creative expression, in opposition to the necessity of committing to social realistic themes. Such arguments had great impact on the awareness of Iraqi artists which addressed the new generation to search for their own individual characteristics, and to possess their own vision instead of simply 'looking for visual sources within one given group',2 as practiced by artists of the previous generation in the 1950s.
The artist's vision, as such, turned inward in attempts to discover his own inner world. That is to say, he was invited to initiate a dialogue between him or her self and the outside world. What also contributed to the raising of awareness in general, and injecting a new spirit into the stagnant art scene prevalent at that time, was the return of a group of artists to Iraq, having finished their academic studies at different institutions around the world. They brought back their ideas, experiences and enthusiasm, which fired up to enrich the artistic scene, in terms of awareness and depth.
What was common to the youth of the 1960s regardless of their orientation, or way of life, was their aspiration to enhance the artistic movement in Iraq and to catch up quickly with international developments. This manifested itself clearly in the call to rebel against classical methods and stereotype forms. Freedom of expression and imagination enticed them to explore the imperceptible aspects of nature, such as space and horizons. New experimental art works appeared, characterised by applying new techniques, in particular collage, and other means of textured surface or decorative elements derived from local traditional heritage.
It was in this environment that Salim al-Dabbagh and his colleagues were educated in the recently established Academy of Arts; a cultural and artistic milieu that positively influenced their personalities as well as their new creative ideas. In a personal statement, Salim affirms that: 'At the beginning of the final academic year, disparities began to appear between masters and students taking the shape of the struggle between two generations. We became eager about every new trend followed by avant-garde artists whether in the Arab world or the Western world. We were particularly influenced by our European professors beside being influenced by each other…this dialogue between us and our teachers had its own consequences.'3
Salim al-Dabbagh also refers to the new attitude and commitment by the 1960s young generation resulting from: 'opening up to international cultures, in addition to the intellectual maturity of the Iraqis and the Arabs, as artists began to formulate their culture and art in the present time with higher self confidence.'4 Al-Dabbagh also emphasises the importance of the role played by his European professors in introducing these new trends in education and art. Artymowski, for instance, opened up new and broad vistas for them, in fact: 'he was nourishing our ambitions' as Salim affirms.5
Artymowski was an abstract painter and printmaker. He drew his themes and ideas from nature and surroundings. He was particularly interested in light and space, earth and sky. Salim al-Dabbagh was greatly influenced by his professor and produced his first abstract painting while still a student at the Academy. He explains: 'Nature was the source of my inspiration at this stage.'6 At the first exhibition of the 'Innovators' in Baghdad, 1965, al-Dabbagh exhibited a number of paintings that revealed his daring attempts to present abstract and semi-geometric compositions.
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a teacher after completing his art training in Baghdad, al-Dabbagh stood in front of the Kaaba in amazement, he found himself standing before 'the most beautiful, genuine abstract art work'. His devotion for abstraction, however, was deepened during his training courses in Portugal when he was granted a fellowship from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in graphic art (1967-1969). It was there that al-Dabbagh realized with certainty 'that abstract work is the only style that fulfils my ambition in attaining the qualities of imperceptible beauty'.7
Most of al-Dabbagh's work has been executed with oils, on canvas or wood, in addition to his distinguished etchings and dry points. His compositions maintained the same basic components and stillness. They did not change much, but grew and took shape from within, while maintaining their spare and cohesive construction. He maintained his own style and character through his consistent visual search, holding on to what he had discovered. He maintained as well his abstract language, aiming to go beyond the outer space towards infinity.
From the beginning of his artistic career, al-Dabbagh became very much concerned with the vacuum and volume in his compositions. This awareness largely developed through discussions held during the academic years, between the students and their professors. Launched from that far off point, he arrived at an artistic formula through which he conceives mass as equivalent to space, a concept repeatedly expressed in his work over the years. He says in an interview, conducted by Iraqi journalist Saad Hadi, 'I use space as an analogue to the mass. I'm now going through a difficult phase, as I'm trying to find a way out of. The more space grows in my paintings, the more empty I feel.'8
Closely examining the details of volume seen in al-Dabbagh paintings, the observer may see that the mass seems translucent despite it's dark colour. Sometimes it looks rather permeated, like a transparent textile with fine threads at its edges. This is what the artist clarifies when stating that his eyes began to draw from his childhood memories, recalling scenes full of certain particulars belonging to both desert and city life: 'Such as the black Bedouin tents woven from goat hair, furnished with colourful rugs and textiles', he says, 'I was surrounded by quantum of blackness…even my night dreams are seen in black and white.'9 Such simple elements seen in his environment proved capable of evoking the artist's recollections, which he later used to evolve his visual art.
Through empty space and brevity of details, whether in form or colour, Salim al-Dabbagh's paintings possess absolute freedom in expressing the unspoken and unseen. He mostly reveals anything with nothing, or only with few things. Observers may get confused by his paintings while being powerfully drawn to them. Perhaps because of its mystery or extraordinary ability to evoke the viewer's curiosity, or he or she may observe with admiration of the skilful performance of his breathtaking lines. Al-Dabbagh's paintings are full of queries. It invites the viewer to explore its depths and reveal its secrets, perhaps to perceive the eloquence of its silence, and the self-composed language maintained by al-Dabbagh, even during the most violent circumstances which Iraq has been going through until this very moment.
Besides being an excellent painter, Salim al-Dabbagh is a qualified printmaker. He was initially trained by his Polish professor Artymowski, who incorporated graphic art into the curriculum of fine art courses at the Academy of Fine Art. Several years later, al-Dabbagh was granted a fellowship by the Gulbenkian Foundation at the Gravura in Lisbon (Portugal), where he spent two years training in graphic art. Al-Dabbagh produced distinguished prints imprinted with his own characterised style. According to Rafa al Nasiri (painter and printmaker), Salim's colleague in Lisbon's Gravura and teaching staff in the Fine Art Institute, Baghdad: 'Salim al-Dabbagh's graphic works in Portugal – as I saw them – were always printed in black and white. His prints are distinguished by their delicate surfaces, in particular those executed in drypoint. His extremely sensitive lines marked his distinction among many Iraqi printmakers. It is through these lines that the tones of colour and varied textures, harmonious or sharply contrasted, are formed.'10
Salim al-Dabbagh lives and works in Baghdad, Iraq. He is one of the very few artists, if not the only one among his generation, who did not emigrate. He remained in Iraq except for a short period when he had to leave as the internal unrest, subsequent to the Anglo American occupation, became very risky. But he returned to Baghdad after a while to carry on a life dedicated to artistic work. His exhibitions include solo shows and partaking in collective exhibitions outside Iraq, bearing witness to the destruction and fragmentation of his own country, and to the astonishing events that continue to take place there.