Iraqi visual artist Haider Jabbar paints the horrors of war with a softness befitting a respectful memento. In the Antwerp Pedrami Gallery he presents a selection of portraits – showing only heads – from an impressive series, parts of which were shown previously on the Venice Biennale and in S.M.A.K.
In 2014, ISIS raided a training camp of military students in Tikrit, Iraq. The extremists decapitated 1,700 young men. The event sent a shock wave across the country. Young artist Haider Jabbar, who lost a friend in the massacre, was also severely affected. For him it was the final straw that made him decide to leave his country. He moved to Turkey, where he started a series of portraits called “Cases”. His goal was to paint 1,700 heads, meant as symbolic graves in tribute to each of the murdered students. “I made about 900,” Jabbar explains. After that he could not possibly go on anymore. The artist had not seen the murders with his own eyes, but in his imagination they mixed with the dead he had indeed encountered in the streets of Baghdad and with the dismay he saw in the expressions of the living. That way he was able to give the 1,700 young people a face. “After so many hundreds of portraits, I got nightmares. They surrounded me and I heard their voices. I had to put an end to it.”
“The imagination of the artist gave
the 1,700 murdered students a face”
Initially, Haider Jabbar did not have a studio in Turkey. Therefore, he mainly painted small works, at home. Some of them are no larger than 10 by 12 centimeters. Lack of space was also the first reason he limited himself to painting only heads. But very soon, he noticed that this was exactly what the project required. It was the core of the horror from which the idea had sprouted, it had to be the core of the works, just the same. “A story with several characters would only confuse the audience. I needed something direct, but at the same time something indirect…” Therefore, even after the Iraqi Ruya Foundation provided him with a studio in Turkey, he still preferred small-sized works. “I do have some portraits 1.60 metres high. But what I wanted to accomplish, translates best into smaller sizes.”
Jabbar paints the horrors of war, but he does it with a softness befitting a respectful memento. With black, red and purple on white paper, the colours of death are present in his work, but his choice of materials – especially watercolours and ink – bends the harshness to gray and earth tones. Many figures have closed or covered eyes. Sometimes you can still see the suffering on their faces, though often, the painter’s brush seems to have brought them some peace.
For the 2015 Venice Biennale, the Ruya Foundation asked Philippe Van Cauteren, artistic director of S.M.A.K., to curate the Iraqi pavilion. When he saw Jabbar’s portraits, he was immediately convinced of their artistic quality. That way, the artist’s work first went to Venice and later to S.M.A.K. Haider Jabbar has been living and working in Belgium for five years now.
The scent of war
“The audience may see a lot of things in my work, and they may feel a lot about it. Gladly, even,” says the artist. “But I prefer to let people go back home with question marks. For example, I really like it when they wonder what drives me to make portraits like these. Maybe this way I can show them something about myself and the place I come from.”
Iraq – and by extension the entire Middle East – has a 7,000-year-old cultural history that the inhabitants are rightly proud of. “But in recent decades, our country has known continuous unrest. Since 1979, we have been almost continuously at war. War is part of our lives, in the exact way as freedom is part of life in Europe,” explains Haider Jabbar. “I was born in 1986, during the Iraq-Iran war. My father was a soldier. When he first took me in his arms, I could already smell the violence in his uniform, I could taste the war. And that not only goes for me, it goes for my brothers, parents, neighbours, the children of today. When Iraqis talk, they talk about war, when they debate, they debate politics. We cannot put the war aside. When I paint the portraits I do, it is not just about figures I see somewhere and find interesting. My characters arise from what I have experienced and what my imagination does with that.”
Art as a language
“Some Europeans are a bit surprised when I tell them I studied art at Baghdad University,” says Haider Jabbar. “But sometimes, living in a country like Iraq, art is the only choice you have. We are a country of poets and artists, because common words are insufficient to express what we feel and think about everything that has been going on. That’s why I hope my work can tell it for me.”
“Iraq is a country of poets and artists, because common words are insufficient to express what is going on inside of us. I hope my work can tell it for me”