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Sharjah Art Museum retrospective pays tribute to ‘Picasso of Iraq’ Ismail Khayat

Sharjah Art Museum retrospective pays tribute to ‘Picasso of Iraq’ Ismail Khayat

Hareth Al Bustani

Ismail Khayat, who died aged 78 last month, was among the most daring, creative and influential Arab artists of the 21st century. Dubbed the “Grandfather of Kurdish Art” and the “Picasso of Iraq”, the self-taught master from Iraqi Kurdistan transcended the boundaries of form and tradition, creating new modes of expression — all the while, teaching successive generations of creatives.

Over the course of six decades, Khayat built a reputation as one of the great Arab modern artists. Demonstrating tremendous depth and range, he created a bridge between the worlds of Kurdish and Arab art, and as a mentor, helped other Kurdish artists develop and exhibit their works across Iraq.

His dreams of creating a Kurdish art centre were sidelined by Covid-19 and an accidental fall in 2020 that left him in a coma for two years, before his death. However, Khayat’s work has finally been given the retrospective it deserves at Sharjah Art Museum.

Ismail Khayat's son, Hayas, says that after his father fell into a coma, the family vowed to give him the exhibition he deserved. Photo: Hayas Khayat
Ismail Khayat’s son, Hayas, says that after his father fell into a coma, the family vowed to give him the exhibition he deserved. Photo: Hayas Khayat

With roughly 145 works spanning Khayat’s vast body of work, Lasting Impressions: Ismail Khayat, on view until November 27, is the latest in a long line of exhibitions at the museum, which aims to recognise the works of influential Arab artists who are long overdue a major exhibition.

Khayat’s son, Hayas, who co-curated the exhibition with the Sharjah Art Museum’s Alya Al Mulla, recalls how it all began. “[After the accident] I never felt like my father was no longer present because everyone in the family was so preoccupied with his work that we would go to him and whisper into his ears, ‘We will open a new exhibition for you, we will take care of what you started,’” he says.

“In 2021, I promised myself that I would continue what he was doing and that I would not stop until I saw his works in the right place at the right time … Out of nowhere, while we were dealing with his health issue, someone texted me and said ‘I’d like to speak with someone in charge of Ismail Khayat’s work’. That person was Alya, like an angel from another world, who contacted me and said they want to make an exhibition for Ismail Khayat.”

Sharjah Art Museum’s Alya Al Mulla, who co-curated the exhibition with Khayat's son, Hayas. Antonie Robertson / The National
Sharjah Art Museum’s Alya Al Mulla, who co-curated the exhibition with Khayat’s son, Hayas. Antonie Robertson / The National

Al Mulla says: “We got in touch with his family and luckily for us, they have already had a huge archive of his work. I’ve worked with many exhibitions and artists, and it’s very rare to come across someone so well organised.”

However, curating a retrospective for an artist who created more than 8,000 works presented a unique challenge — narrowing this down to a concise representation of his career. With such a variety of techniques, methods and mediums to work with, Hayas suggested working thematically, rather than chronologically.

Khayat was born in Khanaqin, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian border, in 1944, and grew up steeped in the landscapes, folklore and symbolism of the region. His father was a tailor so renowned for his craft that he adopted the surname Khayat, Kurdish for tailor.

Growing up the third of seven siblings, Khayat spent much of his time exploring Alwand river and its tributaries, among the mountains of northern Iraq. At the age of 11, began expressing a remarkable aptitude for art; painting the walls of his houses with colourful images of birds and fish.

After secondary school, having been turned down by the Baghdad College of Fine Arts, he enrolled in the Teachers’ Institute in Baqubah, before being drawn to the city of Sulaymaniyah — renowned across Kurdistan as a city of art, beauty and liberty. There, encircled by mountains, Khayat taught art at public schools for 25 years, and later at the American University of Iraq.

Hayas says: “Sulaymaniyah changed Khayat’s artistic journey because he met the love of his life in this city, his wife, Gaziza Omer.” After meeting Omer, Khayat’s work grew noticeably more vibrant and colourful; reflecting his immense love for her. During his career, he painted numerous women — and although they didn’t explicitly depict his wife and mother, they are often seen as celebrating the empowerment and strength of the women he loved.

Some of the earliest works in the exhibition include a collection of black and white drawings, through which Khayat was experimenting with ink and pencil on paper. Among these is a striking self-portrait in monochrome, which shows his distinctive brush strokes. A restless creator hungry for more tools, he often used his fingers and fingernails, giving his work a primal intensity.

Hayas says standing out among the giants of the 1960s art scene in Iraq, such as Jawed Salem and Faeq Hassan, was “extremely difficult, especially if you were from the Kurdish region of Iraq and were young”.

The exhibition features several of Khayat’s works from this period, demonstrating tremendous depth. Alongside examples of idyllic presentations of Kurdish portraiture in acrylic and pencil, and analytical depictions of the winding streets and alleyways of Baghdad are darker expressionist pieces, including 1968’s A Face from Stone.

Ismail Khayat's 'A Face from Stone' (1968). Photo: Ismail Khayat Gallery
Ismail Khayat’s ‘A Face from Stone’ (1968). Photo: Ismail Khayat Gallery

Hayas says: “He was a role model for Kurds at the time because his works were displayed alongside the great artists of Iraq’s golden period of fine art. The Kurds were overjoyed to see one of their young artists standing alongside these amazing artists and receiving attention from Baghdad’s critics and galleries.”

Al Mulla adds: “He was always experimenting; with different mediums, different techniques and different elements, coming up with his own style.

“And he would recycle things,” she says, pointing to a later piece, titled Fish, which is part of the expressionist section. It features a colourful fish set over a black background — which Khayat created by flattening a cardboard box, shaping it into a fish and illustrating it in ink. “He was a very hands-on artist.”

“He believed that there is no waste in art,” Hayas says. “That people can turn recycled materials into art, and that great art is not about having everything, but rather about making happenings look great.”

Ismail Khayat's A Flying Bird on the exhibition's poster. Photo: Ismail Khayat Gallery
Ismail Khayat’s A Flying Bird on the exhibition’s poster. Photo: Ismail Khayat Gallery

One of Khayat’s more recent works, A Flying Bird, features a circular canvas, which he created himself, with a bird illustrated on top in watercolour and ink. Between, are endlessly intricate details, with numerous dramatic faces juxtaposed against one another, and tiny scribbles interlaced throughout.

Coloured in a dramatic red, the piece encapsulates Khayat’s later approach to his work, which combined natural imagery, landscapes and figurative depictions of humans. The artist would frequently explore the landscapes and cities of northern Iraq, soaking in inspiration and later recongifuring the various images in his imagination.

Birds reappear frequently in Khayat’s work. His son says Khayat was deeply moved by an experience early in his life when he saw several birds that had died in “terrible circumstances”. On another level, however, he saw them as symbols of peace, and of freedom. “My feeling,” says Hayas, “is that he held the view that nature and humanity are complementary, and that when we die, we return to nature and impact it in some new way.”

Among his most notable works were his Masks, which he produced over several decades. Hayas explains the origins: “The majority of my father’s masks are, in fact, part of a series that was inspired by my mother’s work in the theatre, particularly after 1989, when they were married … but he also regarded genocide and the Anfal tragedy to be a big element of his masks.”

Khayat's masks were inspired by his wife's success in theatre, as well as the persecution of Iraqi Kurds. Antonie Robertson / The National
Khayat’s masks were inspired by his wife’s success in theatre, as well as the persecution of Iraqi Kurds. Antonie Robertson / The National

During this period, Khayat’s works became more intertwined in the social and political issues of his time. Spanning a broad range of mediums — such as collage paper crafted with his hands, sewed together and brought alive with ink — they depict the physical embodiment of anguish, horror and terror.

In the 1990s, during the height of the Kurdish civil war, Khayat placed himself in danger to paint the boulders and mountains of Pirar, the region between the warring sides. Hayas says: “His goal was to inform Kurds, Arabs, and the rest of the world that Kurds are fighting for peace. This project is still ongoing and has been renewed for many years to focus on the Kurds’ message to everyone.”

Continuing the project, Khayat painted thousands of stones and boulders, adorned with messages and images of peace, importing and exporting hundreds of kilograms of stones across the world.

For these works, Khayat also earned the nickname “the stone man”. Yet, despite his powerful artistic statements, he always remained quiet. When he was sad, he painted, says Hayas. Yet, despite being a “loner” who sacrificed making friends in order to work, Hayas says he was a proud teacher and father, who “never got angry” and “always encouraged everyone to create art and do better”.

Khayat was celebrated not only as a great artist, but also a teacher who devoted his life to education. Photo: Ismail Khayat Gallery
Khayat was celebrated not only as a great artist, but also a teacher who devoted his life to education. Photo: Ismail Khayat Gallery

After a lengthy career teaching, Khayat served as the director of plastic arts in Kurdistan’s Ministry of Culture. He continued to experiment, working not only with paper and cardboard, but carpets, ceramics and woods — and even designing clothing, in a tribute to his father’s legacy.

Hayas visited Sharjah with his mother for the opening of the exhibition, but three days after his return home, his father died. “When we knew the 40th day after his death would be the last day of his exhibition. It was quite difficult and tragic for us, but we are glad to see that his name is always alive.

“Age was never an issue for him; he was always saying, ‘I will work until I die,’ which is why I am carrying on his legacy and will not stop until the day I die, because we can overcome anything and art has no ending point. These messages should be communicated to the world.”

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