Pioneers of Iraqi Modern Art in focus as watermelon sellers colour Baghdad’s dusty streets

Late pioneers Hafidh Aldroubi and Jewad Selim’s notable paintings are found on the walls of the capital’s busy centre

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Two of Iraq’s finest paintings of watermelon-sellers have been turned into murals recently finished by artist Wijdan Al Majed to beautify Baghdad’s cultural heritage and streets in a campaign pushed by the city’s mayor.

The paintings belong to Iraqi pioneers Hafidh Aldroubi, who died in 1991 and Jewad Selim, who introduced Modern Art to the country in the early 1940s after studying in Europe. He died in 1961.

Since taking office 18 months ago, Alaa Maan has wanted to reassure the public that work is under way to reconstruct the city. Nine months ago, he launched an initiative to colour the capital’s streets, as well as educate the public.

“If we want to bring Baghdad back to life we must revive its old cultural districts and when this is returned, civilisation will come back to the city,” Maan tells The National.

Maan launched the Baghdad renaissance project to build trust and co-operation between the state and the public by restoring the country’s artistic history, seen in the murals.

“It is a tribute to prominent figures who left their mark on Iraq’s society by giving back to the public, the murals depict prominent global Iraqi and international human figures,” he says.

Maan, who is an architect by profession, says that only art and culture can bring Baghdad back to life.

“People are hungry for change and reconstruction so when we work on short-term projects such as the mural campaigns, the public can immediately see the developments.”

Baghdad has been exposed to the majority of destruction experienced in Iraq over the last 40 years.

“The impact of the war was seen on its streets. Since 2003 until now we’ve had instability and chaos, which has fabricated the social and physical aspects of the country and the city,” he says.

The significance of Al Sadria market

Al Sadria market, in Baghdad’s central neighbourhood, is one of the most popular for fruits and vegetables and is known to sell delicious watermelons, which is why Maan choose the two paintings.

The mayor's decision to select Aldroubi's watermelon-sellers was influenced by culture and art adviser Zainab Hassan, he says.

Murals drawn by Iraqi painter Wijdan Al Majed in Baghdad. On the left is Hafidh Aldroubi's watermelon sellers and the right is Jewad Selim's painting. AFP

Aldroubi, known as the Baghdadi Artist, was one of the pioneers of Modern Art who expressed his love for the capital through vibrant and colourful paintings of markets and streets.

He captured the beauty of Baghdad’s everyday life through a new form of art and colour that made his paintings stand out.

Aldroubi's painting shows two men seated on the ground selling fruit in a typical scene of a Baghdadi market, representing Iraq's true identity.

Al Sadria neighbourhood was Aldroubi's home town and he had a close attachment to the area as it brought back many childhood memories.

The painting is currently on display at the Burjeel Foundation in Sharjah.

Jewad Selim is known as another founding father of Modern Iraqi Art. He created a new trend by linking local Iraqi culture and international influences together in his paintings. His work shows a female figure who is raising her arms up high in the air, with lots of shapes surrounding her.

A crescent shape representing a watermelon is thrown on top of her left hand, which many have interpreted as a link to the fertile crescent of the Middle East.

Both artists portray elements that many people have looked at when walking through a Baghdadi market, while zooming in on specific figures and movements that many may not have payed attention to.

Bringing joy to the streets of Baghdad

Al Majed, an artist and teacher at Baghdad’s Fine Arts College, specialises in watercolours, but decided to take on this job to bring colour to the city’s dusty streets.

It took Al Majed four days to complete each mural.

“Eight days is a record time to finish two big murals, the sizes were 11 metres by eight metres and the wall for Aldroubi’s painting had windows which made it even harder to paint on, but I managed to make it work,” she says.

Al Majed, who is a mother of three, is used to displaying her watercolour collections in gallery settings, but not on the streets of Baghdad.

“I wanted to bring joy to the streets of Baghdad when painting these murals. Sometimes when paintings are located in museums and galleries they cannot be known to the general public, but now, they are for everyone to admire,” Al Majed says.

Iraqi artist Wijdan Al Majed draws a mural depicting Iraqi poet Mudhafar Al Nawab on a concrete structure in Baghdad on April 26, 2022. AFP

Her students and colleagues have said “it will open the public’s eyes to Iraq’s history and culture that has been lost" and will help people get to know important figures.

So far, Al Majed has made 16 murals across Baghdad. She is currently in the middle of completing a mural representing Mudhafar Al Nawab, an Iraqi artist and poet who was close to Aldroubi and Selim.

“Everyone is getting to know who Hafed Aldroubi is, even those selling watermelons. I got asked many questions when painting the murals,” she says.

Al Majed says she received a lot of attention for the murals owing to the subject of the paintings and for the fact that a woman was painting the walls.

“I was accepted by society and was left to complete the works without any trivialising comments,” she says.

As her murals stand tall and high on Baghdad’s most famous streets, Al Majed feels like she is a part of the capital and is changing the perceptions of many.

— Hafidh Aldroubi is writer Mina Aldroubi's grandfather

Updated: May 06, 2022, 5:17 AM