Written by Arthur Debsi

Suad Al Attar was born in Baghdad in 1942 and came from an artistic family; her mother, Anisa Al Attar (1910-2002) trained in painting in Beirut, Lebanon, and her younger sister, Layla Al Attar (1944-1993) was also a painter and director of the former Center for National Art (now Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad). Surrounded by books and works of art at home as she recalled[1], the girl started painting at the age of 8 and quickly received support from her parents who gave her a room converted to a studio where she could practice. During several events in high school, Al Attar used to exhibit some of her artworks, which caught the attention of the renowned painter Jewad Selim (1919-1961)[2]. In the early 1960s, she obtained a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Baghdad – where she would later teach until 1975 – and a diploma from the California State University where she stayed three years. At that time, Iraq was a major hub for art and culture in the region and worldwide, but the presence of women in the field was quite unusual. Yet, when she turned 21 years old, Al Attar progressively gained recognition in the art scene of the city[3]. She contributed to the development of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art and she was also the first Iraqi female artist to hold a solo exhibition in Baghdad in 1965. Simultaneously, she participated in many exhibitions held in Europe and the Middle East, giving Iraq international exposure. In 1976, she moved to London with her husband and children and remained there from then on. There, she completed her training attending post-graduate classes in printmaking and etching at the Wimbledon School of Art and the London Central School of Art and Design.

Fascinated by the predispositions of his daughter Suad to art, Ali Sadiq Al Attar offered her an album of postcards illustrating the artworks of some European artists such as the French painter Camille Corot (1796-1875). Highly inspired by these images, she used to imitate them. 

In the Arab world, the 1960s marked a significant stage for graphic art, which is an artistic expression, executed on a flat surface and attaches importance to lines, marks, and printed letters[4]. Indeed, thanks to their previous education abroad, Arab artists familiarized themselves with techniques such as printmaking, etching, or engraving and adopted them when they came back to their home countries. In this decade, Suad Al Attar followed the program of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art and observed the popular environment, which was her main topic. She liked to depict scenes of the daily life of people in Baghdad, markets, and cityscapes. However, she was particularly interested in the representation of the woman and their social issues[5]. Thus, the feminine figure would become recurrent in her oeuvre like in the artwork Untitled (1965), part of the Dalloul Art Foundation. Applying earthy tones of color and a two-dimensional perspective, Al Attar illustrated a veiled woman, standing in what could be a house, and looking at the ground. The artist didn’t want to simply illustrate women but she emphasized conveying their emotions, strength and sorrows. Integrating small decorative motifs, Al Attar immersed the viewer into a spiritual universe, giving these unknown characters a sacred dimension. Here, the position of the woman and the gentleness of her face, recall the canons of iconographic tradition. She even resembles a small statue put in the hollow of a wall that forms the canvas.

In the 1970s, the art of Suad Al Attar reached a stylistic maturity, demonstrated by an innovative and free practice. Using the skills that she acquired from before, she employed mixed media and executed some etching or collages such as in Rêverie au clair de Lune in 1972 (also part of DAF’s collection). In this piece, she showed a new approach of the subject, moving from the life in Baghdad towards a more symbolic painting by integrating imaginary elements, likes the birds in the nest, or the little fairy flying around. After she moved to London, Al Attar felt a deep longing for her homeland and thought that being abroad granted her freedom that was not quite available to her in Iraq; notably, during the regime of Saddam Hussein (1937-2006)[6]. Al-Attar found in painting, a way to express her love and yearning for her country. She celebrated the richness of its history, Mesopotamian mythology with winged creatures, and poetry.

Al Attar came up with a personalized set of symbols that represent various elements of Iraq folkloric visual culture such as the peacock, the rooster, or a horseman. The Iraqi poet and author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920-1994) said about this period:  ‘Where the decisive line loses its clarity, the dreams of innocence mingle with the dreams of experience, paradise and desire are interchanged and green trees full of sparrows turn into flames of fire’[7]. In the two etchings called Paradise in Green (1983) and Paradise in Green 2 (n.d.) – both present at DAF –, she celebrated a rich flora in her paintings, through a naïve style. She fully optimized the space of the compositions by superposing the birds, the plants, the flowers, and the trees that she precisely drew. These elements later play a meaningful role in her iconography, and more precisely, her most important element is the date palm. Through this repeated motif, she metaphorically reconnected to the land of Iraq: the etymology of the ‘Tigris’ river stems from a Mesopotamian name for the date palm[8]. Reported to be the oldest cultivated tree, it is associated with the construction of civilizations, both ancient and pre-Islamic. Using the color gold, Suad Al Attar created a dreamlike world like a reference to the paradise lost, namely the Garden of Eden, since the forest represents an image of untouched nature.

The early 1990s were a hard and tragic time for Al Attar who lost her father in 1991, shortly after the Gulf War, and her sister Leila who passed away from an American airstrike on Baghdad in 1993. After she stopped painting for a time, she executed some works with darker scenes in which she would combine painting and Arabic script by adding excerpts of poems.  The canvas turned out to be a sort of diary, a creative outlet where she expressed her fear for her family remaining in Iraq.

Suad Al Attar lives and works in London.

[1] “Biography.” Attar, January 29, 2019. https://suadalattar.com/biography/.

[2] Nusair, Isis. "The Cultural Costs of the 2003 US-Led Invasion of Iraq: A Conversation with Art Historian Nada Shabout." Feminist Studies 39, no. 1 (2013): 119-48. Accessed May 4, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23719300. [P.145]

[3] Ibrahim Jabra, Jabra. “The Changing Forest of Suad Al-Attar.” in Gilgamesh, A Journal of Modern Iraqi Arts, 1990. [P.7]

[4] Muzaffar, May. ‘In Focus: Graphic Art in the Arab World’ in Lenssen, Anneka, A. Rogers, Sarah, and Shabout, Nada. Modern Art in the Arab World, Primary Documents. New York, USA: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018. [P.372]

[5] Salim, Nizar. Art Contemporain En Irak - Livre I, Peinture. Lausanne, Switzerland: Sartec, 1977. [P.82]

[6] “Suad ALATTAR: Ibrahimi Collection.” Suad ALATTAR | Ibrahimi Collection. Accessed May 6, 2020. http://ibrahimicollection.com/node/110.

[7] Jabra, Ibrahim Jabra in his article ‘The Return from the Unknown Realm’ in Al-Muthaqqaf al-‘Arabi, no.4 (1971), quoted in Salim, Nizar. Art Contemporain En Irak - Livre I, Peinture. Lausanne, Switzerland: Sartec, 1977. [P-82].

[8] ‘July 14 Epic’ in New Iraq, no.10, Bagdad, October 1961.

Sources

Al Arabiya English. “Date Palm, Arab Region Symbol of Prosperity, Listed by UNESCO.” Al Arabiya English. Al Arabiya English, December 11, 2019. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/life-style/art-and-culture/2019/12/12/Date-palm-Arab-region-symbol-of-prosperity-listed-by-UNESCO-.

Collier, Caroline. Suad Al-Attar: Recent Paintings. London, UK: Graffiti Gallery, 1983.

Ibrahim Jabra, Jabra. “The Changing Forest of Suad Al-Attar.” in Gilgamesh, A Journal of Modern Iraqi Arts, 1990.

‘July 14 Epic’ in New Iraq, no.10, Bagdad, October 1961.

Lenssen, Anneka, A. Rogers, Sarah, and Shabout, Nada. Modern Art in the Arab World, Primary Documents. New York, USA: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018.

Nusair, Isis. "The Cultural Costs of the 2003 US-Led Invasion of Iraq: A Conversation with Art Historian Nada Shabout." Feminist Studies 39, no. 1 (2013): 119-48. Accessed May 4, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23719300.

Salim, Nizar. Art Contemporain En Irak - Livre I, Peinture. Lausanne, Switzerland: Sartec, 1977.

Suad ALATTAR | Ibrahimi Collection. Accessed May 6, 2020. http://ibrahimicollection.com/node/110.

Suadalattar. “Suad Al.” Attar, January 29, 2019. https://suadalattar.com/.

Qabbani, Nizar, Stewart, Angus, and Bushrui Suheil. Sʻuād Al-Aṭṭār. London, UK: Al-Madad Foundation, 2004.

Youssif, Farouq. “Suad Al-Attar's Secret Garden.” in Gilgamesh, A Journal of Modern Iraqi Arts, 1990.