Written by Liam Sibai Born in Baghdad in 1932, Kadhim Haydar was a prominent figure in Iraq’s theatre, literary, and visual art scenes. He pursued a degree in literature from the Higher...
KADHIM HAYDAR, Iraq (1932 - 1985)
Written by Liam Sibai
Born in Baghdad in 1932, Kadhim Haydar was a prominent figure in Iraq’s theatre, literary, and visual art scenes. He pursued a degree in literature from the Higher Institute of Teachers in Baghdad while simultaneously attending night classes at the Institute of Fine Arts, graduating from both in 1957. Two years later Haydar went to London to study lithography, painting, and theatre design at the Central College of the Arts, now known as Central St. Martins. By the early 1960s, Haydar had secured a teaching position at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He would later become the President of the Union of Arab Artists, as well as the Vice-President of the Society of Iraqi Artists.
The artist’s work exemplifies trends within much of the Iraqi post-colonial artistic discourse of the 1950s and ’60s. Haydar was a member of several artists’ groups, such as The Pioneers and The Baghdad Modern Art Group, which incorporated the painterly techniques and conceptions associated with European modernists into the visual language of their heritage, be it Islamic or Mesopotamian. In doing so, these groups sought to to sever the association frequently made between the West and the modern, establishing a distinctly Iraqi modernity that drew from Arab rather than European sources. Haydar also participated in the Hurufiyya movement, which took Arabic calligraphy as the starting point for abstract composition. Although his work during this time was steeped in Islamic aesthetic conventions, it also took on contemporary social subjects, as can be seen in He Told Us How It Happened (1957). Using his preferred medium of oil on canvas, the artist portrays a mustached, broad-shouldered, muscular laborer sitting on the floor, his elbow resting on his knee; this ordinary worker is presented heroically, as a storyteller and maker of history. This and similar paintings were produced in a period during which workers protested the increasing cost of living in Baghdad.
Following the 1963 Ba’ath takeover of the Iraqi government, Haydar began to incorporate scenes from Iraqi history into his work, particularly the battle of Karbala (61 AH/680 CE) in which Hussayn ibn ‘Ali was killed. The artist created several variations on this theme in paintings like An Impenetrable Shield (1965) or Martyr’s Epic (1965), in which his subjects’ bodies are distorted with an obscure morbidity that recalls Francis Bacon. Rather than attempting to recreate history, Haydar drew inspiration for these paintings from the annual events of ‘Ashura, when Shi’a Muslims commemorate the battle with mourning rituals, fasting, and reenactments. Such works function in a similar logic to that of the Hussayniyat, a form of poetry that depicts the events of Karbala as something occurring in the present to encourage the audience’s fervent, immediate identification with the story. The artist also took inspiration from a series of poems he wrote himself; while these were in the mournful spirit of the Hussayniyat, they were articulated in free verse, again making a contemporary intervention in patrimonial content. Haydar’s choice of subject matter is also noteworthy given its historical context. In these paintings, he enshrines a moment in ancient Iraqi history that is primarily important to Shi’a Muslims, which, though the majority in Iraq, had begun to be marginalized by the Ba’athist regime.
Stylistically, Haydar tended to portray his subjects rather formulaically in ways that recall Mesopotamian seals, with groups of figures in close proximity converging into masses. His later work places a softer lens on the Islamic and animal motifs he explored as a young artist, as can be seen in Language of The Birds (c. 1980); in this work, the bird is surrounded by gentle floral shades that endow the painting with weightlessness. The title of the piece references the Surat Al-Naml in the Qur’an, in which Solomon mentions the existence of a language only the birds know as a testimony to God’s grace.
Kadhim Haydar was diagnosed with leukemia in 1983, and treating the disease bankrupted the artist. Following this devastating diagnosis and his subsequent financial difficulties, he produced several oil paintings about his struggle with his own mortality. He hoped that sales of these paintings would cover the remainder of his medical expenses, and showed them in what would ultimately be his final exhibition. The show was held at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London and brought together many of Iraq’s cultural and intellectual figures. Kadhim Haydar passed away a few months after the event in 1985.
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“ دراسات في الفن العراقي المعاصر جماعة الرواد" . عبد الرحيم , العزاوي. الأدب,١٩٦٦
Selected Solo Exhibitions
The Iraqi Cultural Centre, London, UK
Gallery 3, Baghdad, Iraq
Higher Institute of Teachers, Baghdad, Iraq
Higher Institute of Teachers, Baghdad, Iraq
Al-Markaziyya Secondary School, Baghdad, Iraq
Selected Group Exhibitions
A Century in Flux, Barjeel Art Foundation at the Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Chefs-D’oeuvre De L’art Moderne Et Contemporain Arabe, Institute Du Monde Arabe, Paris
Modern Art from the Middle East, Barjeel Art Foundation at Yale University Gallery, New Haven, US
Mathaf Collection, Summary, Part 2, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
A Short Century, Barjeel Art Foundation at the Sharjah Musuem, Sharjah, UAE
The Sea Suspended: Arab Modernism from the Barjeel Collection, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran, Iran
Imperfect Chronology, White Chapel Gallery, London, UK
A Century of Revolutionary Arab Art, London, UK
Sky Over The East, Barjeel Art Foundation at the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Re: Orient, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Peinture Irakienne Contemporaine, Iraqi Cultural Centre, Paris, France
International Art for Palestine, Arab University, Beirut, Lebanon
Iraqi Cultural Week, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar
Iraqi Contemporary Art, Iraqi Cultural Centre, London, United Kingdom
Artists Against Racism, International Artists Association, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Second Arab Art Biennial, Rabat, Morocco
Art Irakien Contemporain, Musée de L’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, Paris, France
Sixteenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Iraqi Artists, Baghdad, Iraq
First Arab Art Biennial, Baghdad, Iraq
Group Exhibition at Gallery 3, Baghdad, Iraq
Contemporary Iraqi Art, Mirbad Poetry Festival, Basra, Iraq
The Academicians, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Group Exhibition at National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Group Exhibition Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Group Exhibition with Valentinos Charalambous at the National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Az-Zawiya Group, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Carreras Cravan "A" Arab Art Exhibition, Cairo, Egypt; Manama, Bahrain; Kuwait; Baghdad, Iraq; Amman, Jordan; Damascus, Syria; Beirut, Lebanon; London, UK; Paris, France; Rome, Italy
Contemporary Iraqi Art, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon
Contemporary Iraqi Art, Rome, Italy
Contemporary Iraqi Art, Budapest, Hungary
Contemporary Iraqi Art, Vienna, Italy
Contemporary Iraqi Art, Madrid, Spain
Contemporary Iraqi Art, London, United Kingdom
Eight Annual Exhibition of the Society of Iraqi Artists, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Group Exhibition at Gallery One, Beirut, Lebanon
Seventh Annual Exhibition of the Society of Iraqi Artists, National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Exhibition of the Rejected, Union of Iraqi Women, Baghdad, Iraq
Baghdad Exhibition, Nadi Mansour, Baghdad, Iraq
Pioneers, Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, Iraq
Pioneers, Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, Iraq
Pioneers, Nadi Mansur, Baghdad, Iraq
Young Artists of the Near East, traveling exhibition in the US
Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon
Ibrahimi Collection, Amman, Jordan
Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE
MATHAF: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, Iraq
Institut Du Monde Arabe, Paris, France