Like many Middle Eastern artists in exile, the popularity of the Iraqi born artist Mahmoud Sabri and his work has been relatively posthumous. Born in Baghdad in 1927, it was Sabri’s experience as a Social Sciences student at Loughborough University in England that allowed for the realisation of his artistic potential. Through the attendance of evening art classes and his close relationships with several Iraqi artists, Sabri would make his artistic debut at an exhibition held at the Iraqi Embassy in 1947. His varied talents led him to a successful career in banking, of which he became the deputy head of the largest national bank in Iraq, Al-Rafidain, at the young age of 32. He would hold this position until 1959, when Sabri’s concern for cultural heritage led him to resign from the bank and head the Government’s first Iraqi Art Exhibitions Department. Sabri’s approach to art and cultural heritage was one that was fundamentally democratic, outward looking and innovative in that everyone’s cultural heritage ought to be incorporated as one’s own.
Much in the vein of contemporaneous Middle Eastern artists, Sabri’s work was engaged in providing insights into the socio-political issues of Iraqi society, a subversive stance against the era’s repressive Ba’athist regime. The writing of an anti-Ba’ath manifesto would mark a period of exile for the artist, a banishment which proved fruitful in regards to his artistic output, allowing him to be more openly political in his deconstruction of the Cold War era within Iraq.
In 1960, Sabri travelled to the Surikov Institute of Art in Moscow to study under the mentorship of the Russian painter Aleksandr Deyneka, espousing his mentor's Marxist views as well as his artistic flair. Through a Socialist Realist artistic canon combined with a stylistic link to the Russian Orthodox icons, Sabri’s artwork would use a more varied colour palette that reached out beyond his traditional use of reds and blacks. His relocation to Prague in 1963 would see him engaged in several paintings that sought to depict the suffering and plight of the wider Iraqi populace, a creative stance that was coupled with his role in the anti-Ba’ath Marxist inspired Committee for the Defence of the Iraqi People. Sabri’s focus became concerned with the harsh realities of daily life, simplifying models of forms, and using harsh edges, dramatic contrasts and bold colour. The symbolic quality of the images had an almost cinematic and propagandist quality, not dissimilar to war posters.
Only later, whilst in Prague, would Sabri commit himself to a new science-oriented Philosophy of Art, Quantum Realism. This approach was outlined in 1971 when Sabri published a manifesto which sought to depict the complex and contradictory processes inherent in nature as explored through the growing field of Quantum Physics and through an application of the Scientific Method; an area which he believed to be the last frontier in human approaches to art. Sabri lived the last decade of his life in London and was a vital member of the Iraqi avant-garde artists' group as well as the founder of the Society of Iraqi Artists.
The Death of a Child, painted during Sabri’s earlier artistic phase in the 1960s, stands as an epitome for his artistic openness which was exacerbated by a career in exile. The painting evokes inspirational elements through the artist’s exposure to both contemporary Soviet Realist artwork and traditional Russian Orthodox icons. The piece depicts the mourning of a boy by several figures that are in various grief-stricken stances. They are harshly etched with jagged and symmetrical tendencies that emulate contemporary Soviet drawings. The facial features of the people are grimly set and the bold though austere colors typify the visual language of the artist’s anguish.
The attention of the viewer is immediately drawn to the brighter colours and the illuminated boy on the right-hand side of the painting. The figure of the boy is surrounded by several brighter people and brings to mind the artistic depictions of the Nativity as seen in Orthodox icons where the figure of Christ is painted brighter so as to represent his divine nature. This link could be further surmised by two female figures standing over the boy on the right whose contrasting brighter clothing , unlike the rest of the figures in the painting, give them an almost angelic quality. However, unlike Christ’s nativity, the painting depicts a more despondent subject matter which is juxtaposed on the left side of the painting, as an older dead boy, dressed in sky blue, is carried by several darker grief-stricken figures. The boys Christ-like pose depict him in the vein of old master paintings evoking lamentation, notably by the work of the Italian Renaissance artist Giotto di Bondone (c.1266-1337). The light blue tone of the boy draws upon symbolic associations with healing and tranquility which is contrasted with the darker shade of blue in his surroundings, representing a more serious melancholic tone. The juxtaposed light and dark background and the skeletal hands of the painted figures evoke apocalyptic scenes visible in several religious paintings such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (c.1562) The Triumph of Death.
No doubt this is a painting of balancing contrasts, depicting the intertwined nature of both hope and despair through the use of its tones, colours and subject matter. The Death of a Child evokes the tragic balance between the Iraqi revolutionary struggles for freedom whilst simultaneously mourning for the victims who were lost in that struggle. As part of an ongoing Funeral series by the artist, the inclusion of several black-clad mourners in deep despairing grief-stricken poses seeks to symbolise a weeping desolate Iraq under the Ba’athist regime. The loss of the child then becomes an allegory for the death of Baghdad, Iraq, Mesopotamia and in turn, the death of civilisation. Such lamentation is also centered on the living illuminated baby, as if out of some fear that he too would share the fate of the deceased.
Others show an enduring strength through such intense grief, visible through their stoic facial expressions. This is a trope common in Sabri’s other earlier works, most notably Hero where the central figure, Al-Radi, stands at the gallows with a proud and disdainful look in the face of his execution. Similarly in Jnazet, figures in the funeral procession of a martyr also try to seem defiant and unaffected in the face of their loss. The Christ like, transcendental depiction of both boys adds a powerful depth and aspiration to this painting in which the salvation of Iraq rests firmly in the hands of its youth who, through their sacrifices, become like religious martyrs.
However, it is important to note that Sabri does not lose sight of the raw and emotional power of such loss and as an artistic realist seeks to ground such ‘saviours’ who can often become dehumanised by their own surrounding mythologies. Far from being cynical, Sabri seeks to use Christological tropes to portray faith in a hopeful future, a future whose seeds can only be sown by the revolutionary fervor of the Iraqi people, especially its youth.
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