My grandfather, the man who coloured the streets of Baghdad

The National reporter Mina Aldroubi reflects on the life and works of her grandfather, Iraqi artist Hafidh Aldroubi (1914-1991), and how his legacy shaped the evolution of art in the country

Hafidh Aldroubi. Courtesy Mina Aldroubi
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When I hear discussions about Baghdad, the first thing that comes to mind are the Baghdadi street scenes in Hafidh Aldroubi's paintings. My grandfather, the pioneer of modern Iraqi art, expressed his love for the city through colourful, vibrant and vivid paintings. He was an active artist that possessed a talent for capturing the beauty of everyday life through a sophisticated manipulation of form and colour.

"Baghdad is my soul, my mother and my everything," my grandfather said during an interview with Al Rewaq magazine in 1977.

My family home in London is filled with paintings and each one tells a story of Iraq’s rich history and the quintessential moments of its daily life. This could be either a day at the souq, a drink at a cafe, a ladies’ hammam (Turkish bath) or the Iraqi countryside. My grandfather’s subjects held significance in their perceived Iraqiness.

Women dressed in traditional abayas are a constant feature in his work, as well as Baghdad’s other distinct elements.

The abaya represents Iraqi folklore and tradition but is free from any religious or political overtones. My grandfather was tired of the political instability and the polarised debates that were continuous in the Iraqi intellect. Instead he was known as the Baghdadi artist. He incorporated different styles of colours, abstracts and cubism that created a feeling of spontaneity, one that reflected the youthful spirit of the Iraqi people, despite their struggles.

“I love Baghdad very much, it’s my home. Despite the temptations of working in Italy and London, and marrying the first woman I ever loved, I choose Baghdad,” my grandfather said.

Hafidh Aldroubi in the late 1960s with his family. Courtesy Mina Aldroubi
Hafidh Aldroubi in the late 1960s with his family. Courtesy Mina Aldroubi

My grandmother, Suhaila Derwish, who I rely on to narrate his life since his death when I was two years old, once told me: “Hafidh’s love for Baghdad was so powerful that he sacrificed his first love, Jone, whom he met during his studies in Goldsmiths, University of London.”

“Hafidh proposed to Jone but her father insisted that they remain in London. Hafidh responded by saying that he couldn’t bear leaving Baghdad and his mother behind,” my grandmother said.

My grandfather was one of only a few artists selected by the Iraqi Ministry of Education to study abroad in 1936. But his studies in Rome were interrupted by the start of the Second World War. Upon his return to Baghdad, my grandfather, along with Jawad Salim, Faiq Hassan, Akram Shukri, Issa Hanna and Nahida Al Haydery, established the Art Friends Society in 1941.

The group aimed to give artists intellectual space in which to engage with each other’s practices and to cultivate an appreciation of art among the Iraqi public. In the same year, Aldroubi established and funded Baghdad’s first free atelier. The studio was open to all and gave aspiring artists a space to learn and practise art. 

At the same time, he spent a year at the Iraqi National Museum overseeing the displays of antiquities and paintings from archaeological sites, before setting off to London’s Goldsmiths to complete his studies in the late 1940s.

A pivotal moment in Aldroubi’s life was in 1953 when he founded the Impressionists Group. It consisted of my grandfather’s students at the College of Arts and Science in Baghdad. They were Modafar Al Nawab, Hayat Jamil Hadfidh, Abdel Al Ameer Al Kazzaz, Tariq Madhloom and Ardash Kakavian.

Hafidh Aldroubi with the Impressionists Group, 1953. Courtesy Mina Aldroubi
Hafidh Aldroubi with the Impressionists Group, 1953. Courtesy Mina Aldroubi

Despite the name, the Impressionists Group approached art-making from various techincal and stylist angles, reflecting my grandfather’s ability to move freely between realist, impressionist and cubist styles. From the many stories that I have been told about him, was that he wanted to be known as an artist and nothing more; he always had a big sign at home and in his various studios, stating: “No religious or political talk allowed.” He wanted his students and colleagues to focus only on art and not get distracted by the political struggles that Iraq was, and still is, undergoing.

“Hafidh’s life revolved only around art; he was modest, sincere and loyal to his students and loved ones,” my grandmother said.

He represented human values in all forms, she said. “Hafidh at times used to criticise his students, which made me feel embarrassed, regardless of that they had the upmost respect and appreciation for him, as they all knew that his advice was for their own benefit,” my grandmother said.

My father, Sohail Aldroubi, often tells me of how his house in Baghdad was always filled with movement, sounds and emotions.

“Every night we had at least five or six people over for a dinner party. My father [Hafidh Aldroubi] would gather his students and best friends to discuss his paintings, and the rest is history,” my father said.

“He used to tell us that he ‘cannot work’ in a quiet environment; we used to inspire him to work; that’s when he used to switch off and go into his own world and paint.

“He once told my mother that, ‘If you distance me from my loved ones, it means that I cannot be Hafidh Aldroubi anymore’, he said “you will kill me,” my father recalls.

The Public Accomplishment (1972) by Iraqi artist, the late Hafidh Aldroubi. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd
The Public Accomplishment (1972) by Iraqi artist, the late Hafidh Aldroubi. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd

It hadn’t struck me how influential my grandfather was until 2010, when my grandmother and my father decided to host an exhibition in London to commemorate 19 years of his death. The gallery was filled with upcoming artists, reporters, loved ones and close family members, who flew in from the United States and the Middle East to be reminded of how colourful Baghdad used to be.

I was given the task to ensure that each visitor had a brochure, and I couldn’t believe how excited and overwhelmed they were. The atmosphere reflected his vibrant Baghdadi paintings that were hanging on the walls.

He was not only a painter but he demonstrated a deep commitment to providing knowledge and resources for succeeding generations. I remember meeting an Iraqi art teacher in London at his exhibition who stumbled across her words and told me, “Your grandfather was instrumental in instilling the value of art education in Iraq; it is to him that we are all indebted.”

Aldroubi was dedicated to providing knowledge and resources to the future artists of Iraq; he will remain one of the most celebrated Iraqi painters to date. His push for art education and the imprint it left on the modern art movement will continue to prosper for years to come.

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