Born in 1927 in Baghdad, Sabri pursued a degree in social sciences at Loughborough University in the UK. While in England, his interest in painting developed and he attended evening art classes, making his artistic debut in an exhibition held at the Iraqi Embassy in 1947. Following university he made a successful career in banking, becoming deputy head of the largest national bank in Iraq at the age of 32. He had meanwhile met with the group of artists that was to eventually form the Societé Primitive, including Khalid Al Qassab, Faik Hassan and others, exhibiting with them at the Al-Qassab residence in 1952. Unlike the Jama't Al Fan Al Hadith, including Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said, Sabri was committed to a more democratic ideology that everyone's cultural heritage should be incorporated and adopted as his own. Sabri’s education had sensitised him to social issues and with his growing love of art, he soon resigned from the bank to take responsibility for establishing the first Exhibitions Department in Iraq. His political beliefs however remained a central theme throughout most of his artistic career, and he started to focus on painting. Typical of many artists from the region, including those from the neighbouring countries of Iran and Russia, he was socio-politically engaged in a region where artists felt compelled to serve a purpose and art was considered a tool – just like literature – for expressing political concerns and speaking out against repression. Well-read in Marxist thought on art and culture, Sabri naturally gravitated towards Realism and became an active writer and intellectual.
As mentioned in ‘Acqua Ferita’, the catalogue of the acclaimed Iraqi Venice Biennale Pavilion of 2011, Sabri came to be known as one of Iraq’s leading artists and one of the ‘big three’ alongside Jewad Selim and Shakir Hasan Al-Said who were crucial to the Iraqi modern art movement. But he was very nearly erased from this history were it not for recognition by other Iraqi artists, and the role of his daughter who was instrumental in bringing attention to his work. The main reason for this oversight is that Sabri was an outspoken dissident of the Ba’ath party, writing a manifesto in which he defied the fascist regime – an act which subsequently forced him into exile. For decades he lived in Prague (where he joined the Committee for the Defence of the Iraqi People), away from the eyes of Western critics and curators, and as an ‘outsider’ failed to be perceived as part of the modernist movement. In 1960 Sabri went to the Surikov Institute of Art in Russia to study under the artist Alexander Deyneka. He soon impressed Deyneka and during his time there, became inspired by Russian sculpture and paintings, particularly by Russian icons. There was a development and shift in Sabri's style following this period that showed a direct stylistic link to iconography with a palette that reached out beyond his classical use of blacks and reds. He lived the last decade of his life in London, was a member of the Iraqi Avant-garde artists group, and founder of the Society of Iraqi artists. He produced several publications on art, philosophy and politics in both Arabic and English.
The scope of his work reflects two distinct chapters: his early period while in Prague reflected the suffering of the Iraqi people; later he pursued a new form of art that represented the atomic level of reality revealed by modern science, which he termed “Quantum Realism.” By the age of forty, he was working on the relationship between art and science and its link to social development. In 1971 he published his Manifesto of the New Art of Quantum Realism (QR), which essentially explained the application of scientific methods to the field of art, and representing in visual and graphic terms the complex processes inherent in nature. According to Sabri, “Art is now the last area of human activity to which the scientific method is still not applied.”
Sabri’s early output remains arguably his most significant. The 1950s was an important period in Iraqi art history. Due to the changing political climate of Iraq at that time which polarised the upper and lower classes, the need to reflect the hardships of the poor and dispossessed became a distinguishing mark of this period. Unlike his peers who were engaged with aesthetic and stylistic concerns, Sabri eschewed the conventions of style and tradition. Instead, he expressed a certain agony that was partly political, partly existential and the treatment of his social themes was therefore full of pain, protest and anger. His compositions from this period repeatedly depicted revolutionaries, poverty, floods and demonstrations; his individuals were characterised by influences from the Russian Austere style, an art movement that followed Soviet Realism. This meant reflecting the harsh realities of daily lives, 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.
The painting Jnazet refers to these inspirations in stylistic approach. It is the peak of a multifaceted representation of the artist’s political and social ideologies that were intensified following the Ba'athist Coup. The funeral ‘procession’ is harshly etched, with jagged and symmetrical tendencies; an uplifted arm both appears to beat a drum and gesture in defiance. The facial features of the people are grimly set and the bold though austere colours typify the visual language of the artist’s anguish. An exceptional example of Sabri’s important artistic output of this period, Sotheby’s is honoured to offer this iconic work by the artist.
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