We stood in line at the Baghdad College of Fine Arts (now the Institute of Fine Arts) at the University of Baghdad to complete paperwork for our enrolment.
The air was thick with young artists’ eagerness, awe and potential. It was 1964 and I’d just arrived from my home town, Basra, in the south of Iraq. My beloved city, renowned for its literature, also gave the world the polymath Ibn Al Haytham, the literary prodigy Al Jahiz, and the Sufi mystic Rabia Basri.
Basra is home to the country’s main port and sits on a riverbed, Shatt Al Arab. However progressive I’d perceived Basra to be, Baghdad was another world: a stunning capital, a cultural centre, an intellectual powerhouse.
We strolled along the grand Al Rasheed Street with its elegant columns and Al Mutanabbi Street, aptly named after the renowned Arab poet, packed with bookshops and cafes; and felt transported in the historic Al Rusafa quarter. Baghdad was charged with possibility and advancement.
I’d heard about the BCFA’s progressive founders, Iraqi artists Faeq Hassan and Jewad Selim, and was immediately drawn to their art and thought of course our art should celebrate Iraq and Iraqiness in a modern way. As I stood in the BCFA, I felt elated and nervous all at once. In these halls walked masters, and then suddenly, one waved to us as she walked by.
“That’s Professor Naziha Selim,” a colleague whispered. “She’s Jewad’s sister and teaches here.” I knew who she was, and she didn’t need to be the late artist’s sister to be acknowledged. One of the few female pioneers of the male-dominated sphere of Modern Iraqi art, Naziha was born into a family of artists and had studied at the BCFA in the 1940s before going to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris on a government scholarship – among the first women to do so.
I’d seen her work at the shows that were staged by the Baghdad Modern Art Group, a party founded by Jewad and fellow Iraqi artist Shaker Hassan Al Said in 1951, and which advocated for art to honour Iraqi heritage via a modern aesthetic. At its very core, the group encouraged the discovery of Iraq’s rich heritage – what a wonderful way of exploring one’s roots and rousing love for the homeland.
Through Naziha’s work, it was palpable just how profoundly passionate she was about Iraq and its women. It was clear she defended – saluted as well – these two very powerful themes in her work. I shared – and still do – her pride for our homeland and the countless elements in this precious cradle of civilisation. I felt so grateful to be taught by her and my goodness, how stimulating her classes were.
Naziha provoked us to simplify things, so we would constantly consider the balance of colours and shapes in our compositions, with the aim of building a golden ratio, really the basis of all design and architecture.
To this day, when I begin a work, I can hear her words in my ears. She was strict, tough even, intolerant of laziness and chatter, and my word, did she have a tongue on her. When she cursed in Iraqi slang, you'd never have thought she'd studied in the fine halls of France.
She was what we call Baghdadiya – a lady of Baghdad – through and through. She really wanted us to achieve and though her reserve sometimes mistook her for being cold, she had a wicked sense of humour and loved playing jokes on people.
Because she was sharp and intuitive, Naziha knew early on that I wasn’t studying art to become a teacher. She understood that this is what I wanted to dedicate my life to.
Later, in 1965, she asked me to paint her portrait and I came to learn that she only ever requested this from a small pool of talented painters. Humbled, I would frequent her home and in between the sittings, we’d sip karak chai (tea with cardamom), munch on traditional kleicha (date cookies) and indulge in the most intellectually stimulating conversations.
These are memories of gold and I often wonder how I would preserve and share the fruits of these discussions. Naziha was warm and generous, and like her fellow colleagues in the Group, enjoyed giving us the liberty to explore.
In those visits, I could feel Jewad’s presence, just as I had in the halls of the BCFA. It wasn’t just in his paintings on the walls, it was his spirit that dominated, inspired, and permeated everything really.
We once asked Faeq Hassan, who had founded the painting department at the BCFA, about Jewad’s death. “When he died, half of me died, too,” he replied. Yet Naziha’s pain was greater, deeper, and I could sense that it often throbbed.
She didn’t talk about him much and when she did, not only was the pain palpable, but you'd also come to understand that Jewad was a grand and gracious man, and his loss was huge to Iraq and the world, too.
Jewad’s death at the age of 42 in 1961, was Naziha’s anguish, but I began to see that there was more pain elsewhere. Her canvases brimmed with the changes that Iraqi women faced, but somewhere in the brushstrokes of angst across the women’s faces, I felt Naziha’s own personal sorrow.
Perhaps it was her loneliness. Perhaps it was the repeated political and economic blows that crippled Iraq. Perhaps it was the intellectual exodus of Iraqis.
I’d taken her advice and pursued studies in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in 1974 and the Sorbonne in 1981. In 1977, Naziha published an invaluable resource, Iraq: Contemporary Art, which details the country’s Modern art movement, and a year later, hosted a dinner for me on one of my trips back home.
It was wonderful seeing her again and I could feel how proud she was of me. By the early 1980s, she retired after about two decades of teaching at the BCFA, and like many Iraqis, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War, the sanctions, and the American invasion crushed our spirits. In 2003, Naziha suffered a debilitating stroke and died five years later.
She was my teacher, friend and beacon. Indeed, she was a pioneer of Iraqi art, and at the core of Arab art. She’s a fundamental part of our story, but more than anything, Naziha’s work reminds me of home and the grace and kindness of Iraqi women.
Remembering the Artist is our series that features artists from the region