Written by Mysa Kafil-Hussain

Saadi Al Kaabi was born in 1937 in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, growing up in a small town close to the city’s shrines. As a child he explored his environment, playing games with his brother in Najaf’s famous vast cemetery, and also with local kids in the streets, playing various games rooted in Iraqi heritage, which would become the subject of some of the artist’s future paintings. As a young man, Al Kaabi had a reputation for being a highly talented draughtsman; this encouraged him to pursue his work further and led him to win many prizes for his skills.[1] He started studying at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in the late 1950s, graduating in 1960 with a diploma from the Department of Painting.[2]

Al Kaabi produced a great deal of work during his years at the Institute, not just limited to paintings but also a range of sculptures. It was a time of artistic discovery and experimentation, with his creative exploration extending throughout the 1960s. He started his career with the Impressionists Group and participated in their exhibitions, but did not limit himself to one style or the artistic developments happening solely around him.[3] Looking to other influences from inside and outside Iraq, Al Kaabi began experimenting with cubism, expressionism, and aspects of local art and heritage, including both Islamic art and Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian art. In 1966, Al Kaabi travelled to Saudi Arabia, to take on a new role at Riyadh’s Institute of Artistic Education. He became the Head of the Institute’s Plastic Arts Department and stayed for 4 years in a city with little to offer at the time in terms of museums, galleries and exhibition opportunities. Despite this, he managed to hold several exhibitions within Saudi Arabia during this time.[4]

By the 1970s, Al Kaabi had become comfortable in his personal artistic style, reaching his own unique fusion of expressionist techniques with cubist arrangements whilst incorporating signs and symbols borrowed from local ancient history and a consistent desire to explore aspects of the human condition. This materialised into countless canvases with abstract figural depictions, often layered in and around geometrical forms rooted in Iraqi cultural heritage. This combination created an air of mystery, especially as his figures were painted with blank, expressionless faces with large eyes and often static in movement. His work was receiving more attention and praise, and in 1976, he represented Iraq in the prestigious Venice Biennale, alongside fellow artists Ismail Fattah, Saad Shaker, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Dia al-Azzawi and Muqbil al-Zahawi.[5]

The next decade began with great reflection. Speaking to the Daily Star newspaper in 2005, the artist revealed that, in the early 1980s, he had a moment of realization, suddenly believing that all press coverage and praise of his work and skills was said in order to please him. Al Kaabi claimed, “This is not real!” and burned his entire archive of press clippings, allowing him a sense of creative liberation and renewal.[6] This enabled him to look at his work with rejuvenated motivation and a desire to learn more about his personal relationship with his art and the mysteries within it: “I started to discover something a bit blurred, which is the dialogue with the self. That helped me to understand things that looked very mysterious in my paintings. The knowledge of the unconscious in the work, from that point, I am always working on and thinking about.”[7] In 1986, Al Kaabi was elected President of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society, remaining in that position until 1990.

Throughout the 1990s and during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Al Kaabi remained in Baghdad. It was a testing time for most, and it became a difficult environment for artists to work in, mainly due to safety, but also due to nonexistent or extremely expensive materials. Nevertheless, Al Kaabi, who was seeing the pain of his home first-hand, persisted and continued to paint.

"Usually a crisis makes you feel better about your presence in the world…when you feel more aware of your presence, when it burns your insides, you can produce. If you have five fingers and you lose one, you feel the importance of the other four even more. A crisis makes you feel the importance of your existence, which makes you produce more, and better."
Saadi Al-Kaabi, 2005[8]

It was just after this period of crisis that Al Kaabi painted the three artworks in the Dalloul Art Foundation Collection, all untitled and all composed in 2009. Many of Al Kaabi’s works feature lone figures, but all three of these paintings depict active, layered crowds, albeit with his trademark abstracted and heavily outlined human forms.  He emphasizes that his choice to outline his subjects so intensely is to “cancel the time factor”,[9] intending for his humans to belong to any time, separating them from their backdrops and interiors but also connecting them with the surrounding aesthetic for that brief moment. Even when Al Kaabi chooses not to use local decoration or motifs on the canvas, his earthy, desert-like tones create a rich sense of place, as seen in these three paintings. He, like many other artists of his generation, attempt to use a variety of tools and techniques to connect the viewer with an ownership of their cultural and historical identity.[10]

Al Kaabi soon left Iraq and settled in Los Angeles, where he still lives to this day. Throughout his life he has not only become one of Iraq’s foremost modernist painters, but has also proved his skill in both sculpture and ceramic art. His early, experimental work was full of expressionist energy, whilst the later years slowly wore away his bold spontaneity, becoming more subdued, reflective and enigmatic. His artwork is still regularly exhibited across the world, and he still continues to explore the infinite realms of the human condition and the endless creative depths of his heritage.

[1] Kaelen Wilson-Goldie (2005), “Iraqi Artist Reflects a Lost Generation in a Time of Chaos”, n.pag

[2] Nizar Selim (1977), Iraq Contemporary Art: Volume 1 – Painting, p.164

[3] Ibid

[4] Exhibition Catalogue (1976), “Biennale di Venezia ’76: Irak, Venice”, n.pag

[5] Ibid

[6] Wilson-Goldie (2005), n.pag

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Sotheby’s (2018). “Saadi Al-Kaabi: Al-Orta – 20th Century Art: Middle East, London, 23 October 2018”, n.pag

Sources

Selim, Nizar (1977). Iraq Contemporary Art: Volume 1 – Painting. Sartec: Lausanne, Switzerland

Wilson-Goldie, Kaelen (2005). “Iraqi Artist Reflects a Lost Generation in a Time of Chaos”, In Dailystar.com. Accessed July 2020. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/ArticlePrint.aspx?id=96176&mode=print

Exhibition Catalogue (1976). “Biennale di Venezia ’76: Irak, Venice”. In Modern Art Iraq Archive, Iraqart.org. Accessed July 2020. https://artiraq.org/maia/items/show/61

Sotheby’s (2018). “Saadi Al-Kaabi: AL-Orta – 20th Century Art: Middle East, London, 23 October 2018”, In Sothebyscn.com. Accessed July 2020. https://www.sothebyscn.com.cn/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.28.html/2018/20th-century-art-middle-east-l18226