Iraq recovers Faeq Hassan painting looted during 2003 invasion

The early work, produced after the artist's return from Paris in the 1940s, is an irreplaceable piece of Iraqi cultural heritage

This Faeq Hassan painting of a Kurdish sheikh, looted in 2003, has been returned to the Baghdad Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities – Iraq
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Iraq's Ministry of Culture Tourism and Antiquities has recovered a painting by the late artist Faeq Hassan, a luminary of the Golden Age of Iraqi art in the 1950s and '60s. It depicts a Kurdish sheikh resting casually with a rifle between his legs.

The painting was among those looted from the Saddam Centre for the Arts during the US invasion of 2003 and was found in the Ibrahimi Collection of Fine Art in Amman. As soon as the collector, Hassanein Al Ibrahimi, discovered the work's origins, he returned it to Iraq, says Hasanein Sadik Ayeed, director of the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad.

A man sits in front of a Faeq Hassan mural titled 'Women and Birds', in central Baghdad. Photo: AFP

"This work was among the assets of the National Museum of Modern Art in the past, and it bears a catalogue number and the department's name.

"After 2003, all of these museum works were lost and sent abroad. Artists and connoisseurs bought and acquired most of them and hung them in their homes, workplaces, circles and art institutions — particularly members of the Iraqi community residing outside the country, and expatriates."

For the ministry and other bodies that have since been searching for these artworks, the return of a Hassan is a significant accomplishment. The painting will be shown as part of the museum's Faeq Hassan Art Gallery.

Faeq Hassan's Cubism-inspired 'El-Allabat' (The Curd Sellers), painted in the early 1950s. Photo: Bonhams

"Pioneering artists' works, especially 50 to 75-year-old works, will be featured here in the museum. They're considered civilisational and cultural heritage of high artistic value," says Sadik Ayeed.

"Most of the Iraqi artists participated in the initial stages of Iraq's establishment and presented their distinguished works as a record of the events, people, places and personalities that are still remembered today."

Hassan created the painting in the northern Iraqi city of Zakho as one of six portraits of the Kurdish sheikh Bazi Al Kurdi Al Badnani.

Produced in the early 1940s, it bears the more naturalist style that Hassan later broke from as he moved to more expressionist and cubist styles. In it, Al Kurdi Al Badnani sits bowlegged in baggy trousers. One arm rests on a table behind him and the other clutches a wooden rifle, the browns and black matching the sheikh’s attire.

At the time, Hassan had returned from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was director of the painting and sculpture department at Baghdad's Institute of Fine Art, where he pursued an important and influential career as an educator.

Visitors explore works by Faeq Hassan at Iraq's Ministry of Culture in Baghdad. Photo: AFP

Artistically, he was moving away from the traditional, academic styles that he learnt in Paris, and was instead intent on picturing everyday scenes of Iraqi life.

He travelled across the country to capture its people, as his time in Zakho suggests. He also organised summer camping trips in rural Iraq with Al Ruwwad, or the Societe Primitive — the group he began leading organically in the 1940s and which he officially founded in 1950.

The painting of the Kurdish sheikh is emblematic of this impulse to depict Iraqis, illustrating the young man with a direct, calm and peaceful expression on his face. It's return marks a major milestone for the country's artistic community.

Scroll through the images below to see Iraq's streets transformed by murals of celebrated figures

Updated: August 30, 2022, 4:46 AM