Written by Mysa Kafil-Hussain

“His roots are in the archaeological sites of ancient Iraqi cultures, but his contemporary awareness feeds these roots and brings about in his work a haunting mixture of the beautiful and the agonized”
Jabra Ibrahim Jabra on Saleh Al-Jumaie[1]

Saleh al-Jumaie was born in 1939 in Suwaira, a city south of Baghdad on the west bank of the river Tigris, where he spent his childhood before moving to Baghdad in the mid-1950s. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts, becoming part of the first generation of artists to graduate from the new institution in 1962, and taught by pioneers of Iraqi art such as Hafidh al-Druby. Young artists such as al-Jumaie would have been taught the foundations of artistic practice and art history, both local and international, but this new generation would push the boundaries of experimental modern art in every possible dimension, incorporating a rejuvenated understanding of local culture and heritage.

Following his graduation, al-Jumaie received an Iraqi government scholarship to study abroad in the USA, attending the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he completed a degree in Fine Arts and graduated in 1965.[2] He had already begun exhibiting and making a name for himself from the early 1960s (he became a member of the Iraqi Artist Society in 1961 and took part in their annual exhibitions) and his time spent in California expanded his horizons further with regards to his artwork and his progressive international outlook. When al-Jumaie returned to Baghdad in 1965, he was looking for ways to propel his creativity alongside his fellow artists, which resulted in the formation of a group named The Innovationists (al-Mujadideen), for which he was a founding member.[3] Other members included artists such as Ali Talib, Amer al-Obaidi and Salim al-Dabbagh, all of whom were attempting to navigate not just the world of contemporary art, but also the ever-changing socio-political environment in Iraq. The purpose of the group was to encourage the artists to rebel against traditional artistic styles, techniques, topics and especially mediums, often taking group trips to rural areas and archaeological sites within Iraq to seek inspiration for their work. The group held their first exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in 1965 and again for several years, and although the formal collective did not last long, the artists continued to push their own personal artistic boundaries.

The late 1960s was full of regional upheaval, with the 1967 Six Day War against Israel as a key turning point across the Arab world. The crushing defeat of the Arab alliance had resulted in local intellectuals and artists considering their roles and their purpose within the persisting movement of Arab nationalism. Al-Jumaie, alongside artists including Dia al-Azzawi, Hashim Samarchi, Ismail Fattah, Muhammed Muhraddin and Rafa al-Nasiri, founded the New Vision group, a collective which hoped to reposition innovative artistic practice and revolutionary politics together (especially the Palestinian cause) on the same stage, creating progressive and electrifying artwork in various mediums, but with a particular focus on graphic art and posters, which al-Jumaie was particularly keen on. Poster art became a prominent tool in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and al-Jumaie took part in a number of exhibitions and festivals, which celebrated the artform, including 1972’s groundbreaking al-Wasiti Festival in Baghdad.[4] Al-Jumaie’s exploration into graphic art did not just stop at posters: he also produced a number of book covers over many years,[5] all incredibly abstract and full of deep, dark enigmatic illusions and creatures, with many stylistic connections to Sumerian figural art.[6]

However, although he was an extremely interesting graphic artist, it was his paintings, which he became predominantly known for, and especially his ability to combine the modern and the ancient within the same canvas and with a variety of media. At times he also moved beyond the canvas, for example in his 1974 untitled engraving, which is in the Dalloul Collection. A chaotic and mesmerising scene, al-Jumaie incorporated script into this piece, something he often did in his earlier years but which faded over time on his increasingly abstract pieces. There are four further works by al-Jumaie in the Dalloul Collection – Letter #1 (1986), Man and Wife (2008), The Road to Zewia (2009) and Determination (2011). All four are fantastic examples of al-Jumaie’s love for creating three-dimensional artworks, but on canvas or board, rather than in traditional sculptural form. He had shifted from conventional oil colours many years before, and switched to aluminium, which he often scratched, melted and folded, manoeuvring the material until it formed the vision in his creative mind.[7] In these artworks we can see bodies, faces with a range of expressions, a letter with some form of pseudo-ancient script scratched into the metal, and in Road to Zewia (2009), an entire landscape, including elegant expressive palm trees created with aluminium, in a piece which we can perhaps assume is a tribute to the Zewia (often spelled Zawiya) area of Iraq, close to Fallujah, and like much of Iraq, lined with endless palm trees. His dark and dreamlike compositions, immersed with local and regional symbolism rooted in both the ancient and the modern, have persisted throughout his career, and continue to excite and enchant viewers, as did his bold and principled posters and other graphic work from his early years as an artist.

In 1979, as Saddam Hussein rose to power in Iraq, al-Jumaie left the country like many of his fellow artists and thousands of people throughout Iraq. He and his family settled in Alameda, California, in 1981, where he still lives now.[8] He continues to create his own personal artworks, just as experimental in recent years as they were in the 1960s, and also continues to exhibit in many group exhibitions all over the world.

[1] Exhibition Catalogue (1986), “‘Saleh Al-Jumaie: Fragments from Ancient Books’ – Alif Gallery, Washington D.C., USA, p.1

[2] Exhibition Catalogue (1986), “‘Saleh Al-Jumaie: Paintings’ – Gallery One, Beirut, Lebanon”, n.pag

[3] Nizar Selim (1977), Iraq Contemporary Art: Volume 1 – Painting, p. 196

[4] Dia al-Azzawi (2018), “Graphic Design and the Visual Arts in Iraq”, In Modern Art in the Arab World -  Primary Documents, p. 370-371

[5] Modern Art Iraq Archive (n.d.), “Book Covers designed by Saleh Al-Jumaie”, n.pag

[6] Exhibition Catalogue (1978), “‘Saleh Al-Jumaie’ – Gallery Norske Grafikere, Oslo, Norway”, n.pag

[7] Selim (1977), p. 196

[8] Ibrahimi Collection (n.d.), “Saleh AlJumaee”, n.pag


Al-Azzawi, Dia (2018). “Graphic Design and the Visual Arts in Iraq”. In Lenssen,Anneka; Rogers, Sarah; Shabout, Nada, Modern Art in the Arab World -  Primary Documents. North Carolina: Duke University Press: pp. 370-371

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

Exhibition Catalogue (1986). “‘Saleh Al-Jumaie: Fragments from Ancient Books’ – Alif Gallery, Washington D.C., USA, In Modern Art Iraq Archive (MAIA), Artiraq.org. Accessed July 2020.http://artiraq.org/maia/items/show/202

Exhibition Catalogue (1978). “‘Saleh Al-Jumaie’ – Gallery Norske Grafikere, Oslo, Norway”, In Modern Art Iraq Archive (MAIA), Artiraq.org. Accessed July 2020. http://artiraq.org/maia/items/show/44   

Exhibition Catalogue (1968). “‘Saleh Al-Jumaie: Paintings’ – Gallery One, Beirut, Lebanon”, In Modern Art Iraq Archive (MAIA), Artiraq.org. Accessed July 2020. http://artiraq.org/maia/items/show/765             

Ibrahimi Collection (n.d.), “Saleh AlJumaee”, In IbrahimiCollection.com. Accessed July 2020. https://ibrahimicollection.com/node/97

Modern Art Iraq Archive (n.d.). “Book Covers designed by Saleh Al-Jumaie”, In Modern Art Iraq Archive (MAIA), Artiraq.org. Accessed July 2020. http://artiraq.org/maia/items/show/793