is a long procession
Cities pat its shoulders
as palm trees weep
—Sinan Antoon 
In these ashen years following the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Kareem Risan has produced over two dozen art books. Created as one-of-a-kind artifacts, some are bound and can be unfolded, expanded, and positioned upright to be viewed in the round, while others are comprised of separate panels amassed in a portfolio or box. During this long period of charting Iraq’s most recent phase of destruction, Risan has chosen to focus on two major points of entry: the walls of Baghdad, ancient and newly erected, and a map of the city as though viewed through the distant perspective of aerial reconnaissance. Both vantage points reference the American occupation and the chaos that has ensued. Risan’s views from above are also akin to the abstracted representation of bodies in motion—whether belonging to the natural world or the inventions of mankind—that characterize a Suprematist organization of the world. In these post-invasion compositions, however, streets, alleyways, rivers, and large stretches of land betray the definition of geometric order as the artist surveys fractured cityscapes. Frail arteries are unable to escape spaces that bleed from one fold to the next as they run across several pages.
Unfurling these fragile works reveals surfaces soaked in broad washes and impressed with small thin line drawings and handwritten texts. At times, the artist’s written narration is stylized to such a degree that letters seem to take on the appearance of ancient pictographs, gathering as a constellation of celestial beings. Life and death often meet on the same plane through an overlay of media and found objects, and scarring many of these textured sheets are areas that have been burnt or cut out, exposing a stratum of the page that is hidden yet vulnerable, charred or stripped bare by the impact of an external force. Fragmentation, realized in form and layered with metaphor, is a concept that Iraqi artists working in a variety of media have turned to since 2003.
["Baghdad Fragmented City" (2007). Image copyright the artist.]
Risan’s palette has remained consistent throughout. There are, for example, the golden earth tones that Iraqi painters have employed for decades when rendering the country’s landscape and people in light or shadow, color fields derived from its vast history. Also visible are deeply saturated reds and charcoaled blacks, bringing to mind the thirteenth-century adage from the Mongol siege of Baghdad, the reddening and blackening of the Tigris river from the blood and ink of the city’s inhabitants.
["Al Mutanabbi Street" (2007). Image copyright the artist.]
Born in Baghdad in 1960, Risan lived and worked in Iraq until the onslaught of the invasion; shortly after, he was forced to flee to Jordan during an especially volatile period of the occupation, and currently resides in Canada. While in Amman, he was active with a small but significant group of artists and cultural practitioners that often convened at Dar Al-Anda Gallery, a hub for Iraqi art in exile. He received his artistic training at the Academy of Fine Arts, Baghdad, which frequently shaped the direction of local aesthetics through its faculty of leading painters and sculptors. The institution’s roster of past instructors includes pioneers such as Faiq Hassan, Ismail Fattah, and Mohammed Ghani Hikmat—modernists who turned to Iraq’s centuries-old visual culture for inspiration.
["Uranium Civilization" (2007). Image copyright the artist.]
Risan is identified as belonging to the so-called Eighties Generation that emerged against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War. Many of these artists also experienced the First Gulf War and the US/UN sanctions on Iraq and are alternatively referred to as the “Uranium Generation.” In the 1990s, although faced with extreme isolation and dwindling resources (creative and otherwise), Risan and his colleagues furthered the experiments of their predecessors while exploring conceptually-driven approaches, notably through mixed-media and assemblage and with a heavy emphasis on abstraction. Farouk Yusif describes this now exiled and scattered set as “painters of critical moments” whose works “neither deceive nor beautify” as they “enter an arena of open warfare, painting public life.” Yusif’s observations evoke the definition of the nineteenth-century Realist movement in Europe as put forth by Linda Nochlin. According to Nochlin, writers and artists of the period were “explorers in the realm of fact and experience, venturing into areas hitherto untouched or only partly investigated.” The Iraqi school of the Eighties Generation indeed affirms that painting is a “concrete art,” as Gustave Courbet declared, one grounded in the physical dimensions of reality. Figuration in the form of found objects signals the material culture of a place now consumed by a catastrophe so immeasurable only abstraction can communicate its seizure of space and time.
["Fires of Baghdad" (2003). Image copyright the artist.]
In Kareem Risan’s The Book of Sectarianism (2013), which is reproduced below, Iraq is quickly receding.
*All images copyright the artist.
1. From the poem "Wrinkles; on the wind`s forehead" (2003), The Baghdad Blues, Brownsville, Vermont: Harbor Mountain Press, 2007.
2. For a firsthand account of this period see artist Hanaa Malallah`s "Consciousness of Isolation," Strokes of Genius, ed. Maysaloun Faraj, London: Saqi Books, 2001.
3. Faoruk Yusif, "Painters of Critical Moments: Ghassan Ghaib, Kareem Risan, and Nazar Yahya," Art in Iraq Today, ed. Samar Faruqi, Milan: Skira, 2011.
4. Linda Nochlin, Realism. London: Penguin Books, 1971.