When Ismail smiled, his eyes vanished under the puffiness of his eyelids. Ripples of dimples made way for a big grin, and then you heard it: that guttural laugh that seemed to come from the depths of him. It had a hiss and a cackle to it and somewhere between the transformation of his face and his hearty guffaw, you forgot the joke and just laughed because he was laughing. My goodness, how his eyes glittered, a reflection of his personality.
I don’t think I ever saw Ismail upset. He was easy-going, loving, calm and at peace with himself. Humble to a fault, he blushed if I introduced him as a notable Iraqi artist.
Ismail had attended the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts, completing degrees in painting and sculpture in 1956 and 1958 respectively, and in 1962, went to Rome where he pursued a master’s in fine art from the Accademia di Belle Arti and studied ceramics at the Accademia San Giacomo.
He returned to Baghdad with a dynamism, eager to celebrate Iraqi-ness by marrying the traditional and the contemporary. His art gave him a lot of confidence and that was most definitely rooted in the fact that he was an authentic human being and a genuine artist. He was always true to himself and to his art.
Ismail also had the heart of a child. Little pleasures made him happy – my mother's kibbeh, a fun outing and witnessing the progress of young, aspiring artists. "Being around them makes me feel young," he would say. I don't think he spent as much time with his contemporaries as he did with young artists.
He was kind, with his time and with his work, often giving pieces as gifts, with the full knowledge that they would be sold. I learnt that Ismail handed out works during the 1990s at the peak of the sanctions on Iraq. When I told him I’d heard this, he replied, “Zein, zein, zein, [OK, OK, OK],” with a smile. “It will make them money, they can buy materials, travel and stage exhibitions.”
He and fellow Iraqi artist Shaker Hassan Al Said, who died in 2004, refused to raise the prices of their works, believing that in doing so, their art would be undemocratic and unavailable to all.
I met Ismail in 1994 through another Iraqi artist Mahmoud Al Obaidi, who ran the now-defunct Abaad gallery in Amman. At the time, I was curator of a bank that sponsored some of Abaad’s exhibitions and art catalogues, and during a meeting with Al Obaidi, Ismail showed up.
Though I collected art (and still do), I am no art historian, nor did I study art, save for a few precious electives at university, but I was instantly captivated by his conversation, personality and artwork, which I found has a unique sensitivity and distinct vocabulary. We became friends, our exchanges always grounded in how art told us more about ourselves.
Ismail, Al Obaidi and Al Said gave me confidence in my eye training (which I continue to exercise today). Delighted that I wasn't looking at aesthetics, but rather, technique and expression and how those translated into the overall composition, they encouraged me to become a critic (I didn't).
I felt enriched, full and grateful. Even during Covid-19 restrictions I felt their artworks’ energy radiate. After all, pieces of the artists’ souls are embedded in their works.
I remember how something always nagged at Ismail, like a question he couldn’t answer: the effort or lack of, that artists put into the aesthetics of their work.
His late artist wife, Lisa, and Al Obaidi were not concerned about their art’s visual appeal, nor did they exert any attempt in "beautifying their work", as Ismail would say.
He envied such nonchalance. My guess is that he wanted viewers to first register the power of his work, and then its beauty, and not vice versa.
The fact remains that Ismail had such an incredible command of colour, a personal colour theory that was complex. He treated his paintings with such a sensitivity and yet, he built them as he would a sculpture, giving structure to colour and composition. You could go so far as to say he sculpted his paintings and drew his sculptures. He was always sketching and drawing; it was the basis of all his work.
Ismail revisited the human face time and again through his paintings and sculptures. One strand of his practice is the famous nine faces paintings, which he interpreted several times, at what I read as him challenging himself. I thought it was the most difficult.
In a painting I have of Ismail’s nine faces, there is a wealth, a plethora as far as colour treatment is concerned. It is dazzling, the structures and layers palpable, making this painting (and others) multidimensional. It reaffirms his talent at sculpting canvas.
And then there is the cockerel that symbolised men, and in which Ismail poured all of man’s attributes – his prowess, his ego, his manhood. In the figures of his sculptures and drawings, he paid tribute to ancient Mesopotamian civilisations by mirroring Sumerian anatomical illustrations.
There were three things he loved: life; art and Iraq. Ismail was a proud Iraqi and he wanted to transmit this honour. He did so by teaching where he studied, at the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts, by joining and co-founding several art groups and by creating public artworks inspired by Iraq's history and the Abbasid era. Among his most notable works is Al Shaheed Monument or The Martyr's Monument in Baghdad, a tribute to the fallen during the Iran-Iraq War.
However much Ismail loved life, there came a time when he was afraid of death. Amazingly, it was Al Shaheed Monument that disabled this fear. Construction began in 1981 when Ismail was 47 and it took two years for the 40-metre-tall split turquoise dome that sits on a 190-metre-wide platform east of the Tigris River, to be completed. An eternal flame burns in the centre of the domes.
“The minute Al Shaheed was erected, my fear of death was released. I don’t know how or why,” Ismail once said. I never understood how or why, either. But when cancer forced him to see his impending death in 2004, he asked to be flown to Iraq. They say that seconds after the plane landed in Baghdad, he died. I bet he was smiling.
Remembering the Artist is our series that features artists from the region