Suad Al-Attar is the most celebrated Iraqi artist of her generation. The first woman artist to have a solo exhibition in Baghdad, her work is in private and public collections worldwide. A substantial monograph documenting her career was published in London in 2004.
Suad’s Baghdad is rooted in memories of family and childhood that speak of a very different time and place. She was born in the city, the middle of three children. Her father was an accountant whose family had been established in Baghdad for generations; her mother was from a prosperous family from Basra in southern Iraq. It was an educated, outward-looking household.Suad’s parents, Anisa and Ali Sadiq were married in 1935 and settled in Baghdad. Suad’s father died in 1991 and her mother died in 2004.
Suad’s mother, Anisa Abdul Raheem Abdul Nibi was born in 1910 in Basrah (southern city in Iraq). Anisa showed great talent in painting and craft. She and her family left the mansion of Kaser Al-Saragi in Basrah and moved to Beirut and later to Baghdad. She studied fine art in Miss Kasab School of Fine Arts, and then married her second cousin, Ali Sadiq Al-Attar. They settled in Baghdad till the year she passed away – 2002. This is a rare photo of her taken in Bashrah 1925.
The family home, she recalls, was filled with books and works of art. In the early 1950’s, when Suad began to show a precocious interest in painting, her father presented her with an album of postcards of works by European artists, including Corot and David, whom she copied. She still retains this album from which so much inspiration was drawn. Her mother had trained as an artist in Beirut and was similarly supportive, presenting Suad with her paintbox and encouraging her to draw every day. By the age of sixteen, she had been given a room for her to use as a studio.
Suad was educated at a mixed elementary school, where art classes, school plays and even girl guides formed part of her experience. But above all it was the city itself, its houses and mosques interspersed with palm trees and bisected by the sweep of the Tigris, which was to provide a context for her memories. In the evenings, her brother would take Suad to watch the spectacular sunsets over the river. During the hottest parts of the year, the family slept on the roof of their house. Suad and her sister would lie awake listening to the songs that floated into the warm evening air from radios in neighbouring houses and cafes.
Move to London
In 1976, Suad left Baghdad with her husband and children and settled in London. Separation and absence have always had a particular potency for artists. Suad readily acknowledges their capacity to heighten memories and to help shape a version of the past that is tinged with myth and symbol. For her, the perpetual sense of longing for ‘home’ has always been balanced by an awareness of the freedom that comes with distance. This freedom – a conditioned that gained added significance following the regime’s rise to power in the early 1970s – has enabled her to explore her relationship with her homeland and to develop a personal visual language with which to express it.
Elements of this language are to be found within the traditions of Middle Eastern art. The winged creatures of Assyrian reliefs, Sumerian sculptures and the illuminated manuscripts of the Baghdadi School were instrumental. However, this awareness of her Arabian heritage did not result in slavish imitation, but was forged with her own romantic imagination and an appreciation of western figurative traditions to create enigmatic images in which narrative and symbolism are intertwined. Through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, several key themes emerged in her work.
Representations of dream-like paradises, populated by exotic birds painted in vivid colours, are fantastical depictions of an imagined Mesopotamian past. Cities, harmonious and at rest, formed a second preoccupation. These arrangements of domes and palms, though non-specific, are clearly versions of Baghdad – as though the artist is expressing the peace that she knows she could only feel, were she again sleeping on these roofs, beneath these skies.
A city is once more present in The Tears of the Ancient City exhibition (2006), but the tapestry of multi-coloured houses of My Colourful City of 1991 has become My Burning City of 2003. The emblematic domes are still present, but are now almost obscured behind a sheet of flame, the cool night sky replaced by columns of fire rising into an orange firmament. Here is the most explicit example of the degree to which the events of the last fifteen years in Iraq have overtaken Suad’s life and work.
In 1991, shortly after the end of the Gulf War, Suad’s father died. Further anxieties about her family in Baghdad and the potential repercussions of the conflict nearly caused Suad to stop painting for a period. At this time she produced a series of small-scale ball-point pen drawings, that carried extracts from poems. (Poetry has always played an important part in feeding her sense of place.) These intimate and meditative images almost functioned as a diary, recording a growing sense of foreboding. They usher her work into a darker, more subdued world.
Then in 1993, Suad’s sister Leila was tragically killed during an air raid on Baghdad.
During the 1990’s Suad painted a series of larger canvases, depicting monumental winged figures [A number of these paintings were featured in the Leighton House Museum exhibition in 2006. A second exhibition at Leighton House Museum, entitled Tree of Life – Visions from Gardens of Eden, followed in 2011.
Excerpt from Tears of the Ancient City exhibition, written by Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator, Leighton House Museum, London, UK
Brief Introduction to Tree of Life – Visions
from Gardens of Eden exhibition in London
Suad has exhibited in private and public galleries around the world. This unique, precious painter has inspired other Arabs, women especially, who have to fight so much harder for global recognition. There are many in the visual art world, though, who say to me that she has still not had her due here in Britain, the kind of recognition she truly deserves. She once told me, her voice unusually quiet:” It’s not easy to make your mark in London”.
Her art, she says, is who she is, her soul, her obsession, her immortality, and besides her beloved family, the reason she lives. Ferociously independent, she believes: “Your identity is what you do, not who you are married to” – a lesson she has gifted to her daughters.
Trees are deeply embedded in Suad’s subconscious, are a symbol of endurance and magnificence and yet are tragically confined too. They reflect the common human condition. ”A woman is like a tree, rooted in the earth and she strives, as a tree which strains its branches towards the indifferent sky, to break free from her servitude.”
Excerpts from Tree of Life Exhibition in London, 2011, written by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Suad Al-Attar – (C.V.)
Painter and Print maker
- High School Diploma (Baghdad, Iraq)
- A. Fine Art Diploma – California University – U.S.A.
- B A Fine Art – Baghdad University
- Diploma [Printmaking] – Wimbledon School of Art, London, UK
- Diploma [Printmaking] Central School of Art and Design [Central St. Martin] – London, UK
26 Solo Exhibitions
- Baghdad, Beirut (Lebanon)
- California (U.S.A.), Washington D.C. (U.S.A.)
- Leighton House Museum (London, UK)
- Modern Art Museum (Kuait)
Selected Group Shows
- The British Museum
- Royal Academy of Arts – Summer Shows
- Sothebys, Bonhams – London
- Malta, Tunisia, Krakow (Poland)
- Taiwan, Norway, Jordan
- Morocco, Italy, New York
- Algeria, New Delhi, Ottawa (Canada)
- Miami, Paris, Dubai, Sharjah
- Christies (Dubai), Atlanta (U.S.A.), Quatar
- Cairo (Egypt), Rome
- The CIB Award of Excellence – Holland Park 1998 Opera
- McGraw-Hill/Glencoe – World Literature Project
- Honorary Award – Sharjah
- Award of Distinction – Malta
- New Year Card – UNICEF
- Honorary Award – Brazil
- Gold Medal – Cairo
- MIRO Award – Madrid
- Gubenkian Collection – Barcelona, Spain
- Indira Gandhi, Private Collection
- Museum of Modern Art – Amman, Jordan
- Museum of Modern Art – Damascus
- Asilah Museum of Art – Morocco
- Museum of Modern Art – Kuwait
- Conference Centre –Baghdad
- Beit Al Quran Collection – Bahrain
layout and editing by Don Schwager