Three mosaics by Jewad Selim have been uncovered in a house in Baghdad, having not been seen since the 1950s.
The three were installed in 1956 in the house of Nouri Fatah Pasha, adorning the entrance, reception hall and family room of the house in the affluent west Baghdad district of Al Mansour. However, after Pasha and his family left Iraq in the 1950s, the house was left untouched and mosaics were largely forgotten, despite Selim's stature in Arab modern art.
They have returned to public view by chance: like others, the Iraqi artist Haider Salem Al Jaafari knew about their existence but not their exact location. Over a recent cup of coffee, however, he happened to learn about their whereabouts. He contacted the Pasha family to request access, and, opening the dusty doors of the long abandoned house, was met with the extraordinary works. He then wrote about the encounter in Rawaq magazine and shared a series of social media posts, including a video revealing the mosaics in situ.
The mosaics are large, major commissions with two measuring nearly 8.5 meters by 2.82m and 2.83m by 7m each. They show Selim’s distinct, spindly abstractions, rendered against backgrounds of watery blue and deep red. As in his paintings, their complex compositions demonstrate Selim's mastery over space, with his capacity to evoke form through the thinnest of curves.
Selim was one of the leaders of the Baghdad modern art movement, drawing on the Assyrian and Sumerian artefacts, which he became acquainted with while working in the Iraq Museum in the 1940s, and marrying these with new modernisms and symbolisms. Today, he is best known for the Freedom Monument, his sculptural frieze commemorating the 1958 revolution, which still guards over Tahrir Square in Baghdad.
Less is known of his work in mosaics, which he made in both public and private locations. Another commission, for example, was also made in 1956, in a house likewise in Al Mansour. It stood in the dining room of the house and was inspired by the idea of an Arab kitchen.
The Nouri Fatah Pasha mosaics, which Selim made with the engineer Rifaat Chadirchi, remain in remarkable condition. Pasha was a relative of the textile magnate and cultural patron Farouk Fatah Pasha, who also commissioned the Fatah Pasha Mosque.
“We knew about them but no one had documented them,” says the Iraqi art expert Nada Shabout about the works. “They are private murals and access in Iraq still is limited. And there is more to be ‘discovered’ now there is interest and some access. This speaks mostly about the lack of documentation and writing.”
Even if the term “discovery” is overstated, as Shabout suggests, the three mosaics add substantially to the knowledge around Selim. He died relatively young, at the age of 42 in 1961, and many of of his paintings were dispersed in the looting of the Saddam Hussein Centre for the Arts in 2003. Any chance to add to the canon of his documented works is welcome.
Al Jaafari has written extensively on Selim’s work and the artists of the 1950s and 1960s. He has published several pieces of information verifying the works' authenticity, such as an image of him standing in front of the foyer mural, juxtaposed with a picture of Selim standing in the same place, and circulated writings from the 1950s referencing the commissions.
Al Jaafari also liaised with the Department of Public Arts, represented by the director of the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad, Hasanein Sadik Ayeed, to help confirm their authenticity.
Ayeed says plans for the mosaics are being determined by the department and will be relayed soon.