Ismail Khayat, the 'grandfather of Kurdish art', dies aged 78

He taught generations of creatives and produced almost 8,000 works during his career

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Ismail Khayat, the artist known as the "grandfather of Kurdish art" and "the Picasso of Iraq", has died after two years in a coma.

News of his death was announced in a statement by his family, though the cause was not revealed.

Sharjah Museums Authority, which is currently displaying a collection of his work, paid tribute yesterday with a statement: "May his soul rest in peace and may God grant his family ... patience and solace."

A prolific artist, Khayat was a leading pioneer of modern Kurdish art, emerging onto the global stage with a distinct vision and style. His work, numbering in the thousands, took cues not only from his Iraqi-Kurdish heritage, but the political instability and isolation his people faced within his own lifetime.

Khayat was born on July 1, 1944, in Khanaqin, a town in Iraq's Diyala Governate, alongside the Alwand River near the Iranian border — where most residents spoke the Luri dialect of the Kurdish language. He came from a line of tailors, reflected in the family name "Khayat", which means "tailor" in Kurdish.

The third of seven children, Khayat's talent emerged at a young age, as he spent much of his childhood drawing over the walls of his house with charcoal.

Ismail Khayat was born on July 1, 1944, in Khanaqin, a town in Iraq's Diyala Governate. Photo: Ismail Khayat / Facebook

After secondary school, he went to the Teachers' Institute in Baqubah, before moving to the city of Sulaymaniyah. It was there he developed his natural abilities into an artistic discipline; going on to teach art at public schools across the city for 25 years, and later at the American University of Iraq.

Considered a pioneer of contemporary Kurdish art, he developed a distinctive style, inspired by Kurdish folklore and symbolism and Iraqi landscapes, infused with Kurdish issues of collective struggle and political isolation.

Working with various mediums, he produced nearly 8,000 works over his life — more than 100 of which are now on show as part of Sharjah Art Museum's Lasting Impressions series, highlighting key figures in the evolution of contemporary Arab art.

Although he worked predominantly with paint, during the Kurdish Civil War of the 1990s he created a notable series of boulders, adorned with messages of peace, in Kurdistan's region of Pirar, alongside thousands of smaller painted rocks.

From the storied streets and minarets of Baghdad to the landscapes and animals of Sulaymaniyah, and vibrant portraits of women inspired by his mother and wife, Khayat’s unique practice and range of work distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries.

Asides from traditional symbols, such as the evil eye, and the hamsa — an emblem containing a right hand with an eye — Khayat frequently used birds to depict freedom and the fragility of life. In a series reflecting the persecution of Iraqi Kurds, he depicted ghostly birds floating away from the bodies of the dead.

Over the course of his career, Khayat exhibited his work across Iraq, the region and the world; with shows in France, the US, Japan and more. He later served as an arts director for the Kurdistan Regional Government's Ministry of Culture.

Khayat is survived by his wife, artist and actress Gaziza Omer, as well as their son Hayas and daughter Hasara, who have infused the family's legacies of art and tailoring into a Kurdish fashion label, Nakhsh. Hayas co-curated the current Sharjah Art Museum exhibition with Alya Al-Mulla.

Ismail Khayat's work is on show at Sharjah Art Museum until November 27.

Updated: October 22, 2022, 7:09 PM