Written by Mysa Kafil-Hussain

Born in 1925 in Rawa, on Iraq's upper Euphrates, Nouri Al-Rawi was a crucial player in the formation of Baghdad's modern art scene over the course of the twentieth century. His childhood in Rawa was spent surrounded by rural, riverside village life, removed from the bustling urban scenes of the capital city. He later moved to Baghdad to enroll in the Teachers’ College, but even after he graduated in 1941, art remained his true passion. In the 1950s he decided to return to school to pursue what he loved, graduating from Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1959. Al-Rawi's talent was not just noticed within Iraq and the Arab world; his work also struck a chord across Europe, which led to the artist being offered two arts fellowships in the 1960s, first in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and then later in Lisbon, Portugal.

Al-Rawi, who did not want to limit himself to art practice, found time to partake in the academic side of his field. He wrote extensively as an art historian and critic, publishing dozens of books and articles focusing on Iraqi, Arab, and international art, and even established the first regular arts page in a local newspaper in 1952.  He also featured on Baghdad TV from the 1950s until the mid-1980s, presenting a range of art and culture-focused programs such as Window on Art and The World of Arts. Initiatives such as this were pivotal in generating public interest in the arts and came at a significant time in the development of modern Iraqi art. Additionally, he played a paramount role within arts collectives, societies and institutions in Iraq, becoming a founding member of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society in 1956, and later joining the Société Primitive, the Iraqi National Committee for Plastic Art, and the Higher Committee for the Baghdad International Festival of Fine Art. He was a founding member of the Iraqi Artists Syndicate, the Director of Art Exhibitions at the Ministry of Culture and Arts, the Director of the Palace of Culture and Arts, and the President of the Association of Fine Art Critics in Iraq. He was also the President of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society in 1982 and again in 2003. Through his participation in these organizations, he made an enormous contribution to Iraq’s artistic infrastructure, but his most significant role was arguably as founder of the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad in 1962. Building the museum’s reputation as well as its collection, he purchased work by pioneering Iraqi artists such as Jewad Selim and Faiq Hassan, organized groundbreaking exhibitions, and managed the institution until 1979.

Al-Rawi's artwork balanced abstraction and romanticism, mainly depicting scenes from his home country. Though he did paint urban scenes, the artist focused predominantly on the village life in which he grew up, bringing an ethereal and mystical essence to his childhood memories. His earliest piece in the Dalloul Collection, an untitled painting from 1964, shows a darker side to the artist's palette. Instantly creating a low and intense mood with dark shades of green and brown, Al-Rawi depicts a building surrounded by bleak fields, sparse trees, and a lone horse. Although this painting shows humans – something which much of his work avoids – the darkness and desolation counteract their presence, leaving the viewer with an overwhelming feeling of solitude.

Much of his other work, as displayed in his untitled paintings from 2005 and 2006 in the collection, show brighter, dreamlike scenes, incorporating his trademark architectural forms and imbuing his work with a sense of mystical wonder. In his 2005 painting, for example, he utilizes mythical or imaginary forms, appearing here in the night sky as the world sleeps. The written word plays an essential role in Al-Rawi's artwork, with both poetry and Qur’anic scripture having a prominent place in many paintings. His remaining artworks in the Dalloul Collection, one untitled, and another called 'وداعا" رواه الجميلة' (loosely translated as Goodbye, Narrated by the Beautiful) both from 2010, incorporate the Ayat al-Kursi and the poetry of Al-Hallaj respectively.

With exhibitions around the world, his work on television, and an extensive array of publications in books, magazines, and newspapers, al-Rawi tirelessly pursued his lifelong goal of educating the world, and especially Iraq, on art and art history. Nouri Al-Rawi passed away in Baghdad in 2014 at the age of 89, leaving behind a profound legacy in Iraq's – and the Arab world's – artistic history.


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