Remembering Madiha Umar: Iraqi artist who pioneered calligraphy in modern Arab art

Grandson Dara Kittani shares his memories of 'Didi'

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I was about 13 years old when I moved from New York, where I was born and raised, to Baghdad.

It was 1980 and my father, Ismat Kittani, served as head of the Iraq Foreign Ministry Department of International Organisations and president of the United Nations General Assembly from 1981 to 1982.

Within months, I became fluent in the Iraqi dialect and, although I was enrolled at the American-system Baghdad International School, everything about the move was a huge cultural shock.

The Iran-Iraq War had just started and with it came air raids, missiles falling in our neighbourhood and the constant reverberation of shaking windows. Amid this turbulence there was a constant calm: Didi, my maternal grandmother.

However beautiful Didi and Babu’s home was, it was Didi’s studio within that was breath-taking, and where I had the most inspiring, formative experiences

I’d visit my grandparents every day after school, and always came through the kitchen because Didi had prepared a delectable meal for me. My goodness, she could cook!

Didi made the best dolma, mastering the art of stuffing bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and grape leaves — a talent she credited to her paternal Circassian side.

Babu, as I called my grandfather, and Didi had such a close relationship, and in the warmth of my grandparents’ home, I felt shielded from the chaos outside.

Didi was the most loving, caring and sweetest person I know, and I really just wanted to be around her all the time.

However beautiful Didi and Babu’s home was, it was Didi’s studio within that was breathtaking, and where I had the most inspiring, formative experiences. In there, we’d draw together, or I’d watch her paint and listen to story after story.

Didi always had old sayings for me and lots of words of wisdom to impart, articulated so gently. I hung on to every syllable.

After Babu died in 1988, sadly, so much of Didi’s incredible art was looted. Some of it may have reappeared on the market and more may come up.

I remember how passionate she was about the Arabic letter and the fervour with which she insisted how each had its own character.

For Didi, the Arabic letter was a vehicle she used to process her thoughts. It fired her imagination, and her eyes lit up as she explained. The Arabic letter, she believed, could do anything.

Didi’s calligraphy was free, untied to religion or politics, meaning it held another dimension for interpretation and that in itself opened a plethora of prospects.

I was amazed at how extremely focused and methodical she was in her artistic approach and the level of detail she applied. I stared at her paintings endlessly (and still do), energised by the tranquillity they gave me, but also by the endless possibilities I found. I saw, as Didi had, that each letter has boundless potential.

My relationship with Didi’s art began in my youth because I grew up with her work all over our homes and knew that most of it was executed before I was born. My mother’s pride in her mother’s art was infectious. I was, and still am, so proud of Didi and her accomplishments.

Didi’s letters danced on canvases, invigorated by a rhythm she identified for each

Her life began in Aleppo, Syria, in 1908, where she was born to a Circassian father and Syrian mother. She grew up in Baghdad, and attended secondary school in Beirut and Istanbul, later becoming the first woman to receive a scholarship from the Iraqi government to study abroad.

Didi moved to London and trained as an art teacher at the Maria Grey Training College in London, and, after graduating in 1933, returned to Baghdad where she worked as a teacher and headed the art department at the Teachers’ Training School for Women until 1942.

In 1939, she married my grandfather, Yasin Umar, an Iraqi diplomat, and moved with him to Washington in 1942 and it was there that her fascination with the Arabic letter was ignited.

Didi stumbled upon a book, Arabic Palaeography, by Nabia Abbot, an Iraqi-American Islamic scholar, papyrologist and palaeographer, and began to see the infinite possibilities of abstracting the Arabic letter.

In 1949, she staged her first exhibition at the Peabody Library at Georgetown University, followed by a bachelor's degree in art education from George Washington University in 1952. That year, she showed 48 paintings as part of the Ibn Sina exhibition at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

Those paintings marked the launch of the Arabic letter within the realm of modern Iraqi art. It was this that set Didi apart. She was recognised for having freed the Arabic letter from its typical association with the Quran and traditional calligraphy, thereby allowing it a great many abstract possibilities.

Didi’s letters danced on canvases, invigorated by a rhythm she identified for each. She also pioneered with her scratch-works — laminated blackboards that she would scratch with pencils.

Didi went on to pursue a master of fine arts degree from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington in 1959 and returned to Baghdad in 1966, where she taught at the Academy of Fine Arts and joined Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan Al Said’s One Dimension group.

This was a gathering that sought to fuse Sufi tradition with contemporary art. She held several solo shows and participated in group exhibitions, too, for a time living in the US.

I know she was admired and loved by many, including the Iraqi government, and I’m sure it must have been challenging being a woman artist in a very male-dominated sphere.

Perhaps being a diplomat’s wife made things easier — I know that Babu encouraged her, and, in many ways, her art was a form of cultural diplomacy.

I took her to her last exhibition in 1994 — Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World at The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, and saw the sparkle in her eyes when people asked her about her work.

In 2000, when she was 92, Didi and my mother left New York for Amman, where she died five years later.

Didi’s legacy lives on. I’m so proud of it, I love it tremendously, I feel an obligation towards it and it inspires me. It’s the only connection I have with her besides photographs and tells me that she’s still here, and so is my mother.

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Updated: June 04, 2022, 4:16 PM