Abdel Rahman Munif on Jaber Alwan
For the artist, childhood is a major landmark to which he is ever anxious to return, because it is a vital source of his creativity, apart from fomenting desire, anxiety or anguish, infancy is the beginning of one’s own discovery of and uneasy unison with existence. Childhood stores the first wonders, the first steps in a world suffused with enigmas, colours and exciting novel things. If infancy is a phase in a human life passage, it is also an ethos. 1 mean it may be extended or extend, or it may simply lapse for a while only to re-emerge later.
That is because infancy is a way of seeing things, a view to the world, a constant discovery. It is also a life – style, a method of working and expressing. The Zenith of an artist joy is to have access to this ethos, or actually grasp it. Most artists try hard to return to childhood, or retrieve it, with little or great success. In either case, you need more than wishing, you need readiness rather paying a price. Such an attempt is not always satisfactory for the self or the others, fortunate is he who can return , albeit partly, to meet his childhood, bring back parts of this childhood to his artistic work, in a convincing way both for his as for the others.. To have a constant childhood in terms of wonder, discovery or artistic play, is an additional talent for any artist. When the latter laboriously searches for his own mode of expression and style, he is driven by an internal urge, the essence of which is to get an aesthetic, joyful play for the two sides in the relation: the artists and the viewer. If the work of art is devoid of this inner urge, it is dull and irksome. It would lack any necessity, any motive, any addition or entertainment, because it can neither please its own creator nor attract the viewer’s attention. It would look like so many trivial things we pass by in our daily life without the slightest attention.
In an artistic context then, the phase of childhood is aspiration and readiness; it is even a pride for reaching out to the unattainable. In any case, it is defined exclusively by the achievement accessible to the other. Jaber Alwan is characterized by such infancy. True he is nearing fifty, yet he remains a child in his amazement or discovery, his conception of art as an aesthetic play, joyful for him and the others. And he is keen on keeping that, although the burning amber of sadness raises its head every moment, deep in his heart, to remind us of man’s solitude, angst, fear and grief. Life is too short, it is so transient that it slips between our fingers the moment we grasp it, and petrifies into the past, mutates into a memory, becomes longing for the irretrievable. In his old days, Husain Muruwa said he was born an old man and he would die a child, Jaber Alwan by contrast, does not wish to depart with his childhood. After he had tested so many life stages, at home or in his second homeland, Italy, he is keen on deepening his childhood. He has discovered that the task of the artist is: “ To be a witness on my time, and, in particular, to be witness on my own passions without being coerced to falsify the meanings, I want to speak my mind clearly, to be normal, but without being cheap, in fact I wish to say utterly novel things”.
“I endeavor to reach my absolute freedom in art that freedom which contains truth as it is in life: a concrete contact with a concrete image”. To attain such results, such a stage, there is a need to embark on a journey to the roots of space and childhood so that we can conceive the factors and influences which made Jaber Alwan, the artist. When one is born in Iraq, in mid Euphrates valley, near Babylon, during that gray period of Iraqi history at the end of the forties, one is bound to gain from history and geography, as from old, recurrent agonies, ever-lasting features and distinctive marks.
In a small village on tributary from the Mahawil River, itself a large tributary of the Euphrates, a boy is born to Alwan Salman from his new bride, a woman from an alien tribe. As the two previous infants died in the cradle, the third new boy was given the name Jaber, a word denoting the healing of fractured bones to signify the healing of the broken heart of the young mother, Jaber was meant to console the devastated mother who was torn by alienation and loneliness when she was given as a bride to this medium ranking land lord in the mid Euphrates, away from her blood and skin. True, the newly born baby was the focus of attention and pride, particularly for his mother, his date of birth was ever registered the way the birthdays of other infants in the district were. When registration is attempted at a later date, the father could only remember that Jaber came into existence in the year when the sugar ran out of the market place. And so, the year of birth given to him was 1948.
Few years on, the precious boy succumbed to an infection in his jaws. Alwan summoned the village, “healer”, paid him handsomely and asked him to take care of his ailing lad. A customary huge banquet, in which whole sheep were cooked for the village, was held, and the healer performed his operation: cauterization, but to no avail. To this very day Jaber bears the band on his face. As the inability of the village healer was apparent, a visiting mulla (local cleric), who arrived for the annual rituals in commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain, would assume the task. Presumably having divine powers, the mulla ordered the boy to lie down, spit on the infected area, and gave that spot a devastating blow with his footwear, a heavy sole made from thick leather. The mulla’s belief in the magical powers of his saliva and sole was unshakable, but they were no better than cauterization! A month later while Jaber and his mother were on a visit to the Hilla Township, they met a family relative who noticed the boy’s trouble and brought him some herbal medicine from the market herb dealer.
In few days the youngster was cured, but the cheek kept the scar of cautery, and the memory engraved the recollection of the saliva and the blow with sole. Alwan was a wealthy landlord, living well beyond the means of his neighboring peasants; he had a guest house where the village male community gathered to sip coffee, discuss their affairs: sowing, irrigation or harvest; or assembled at the Ashura Ceremony in which the mulla would retell the narratives of karbala battle, enact the drama, shed tears on the fate of slain Imam. The agony sown by daily laboring for life is enlivened and accentuated by the divine ritual to become a constant rite fed by deprivation and the calamities of nature which now and then threatened soil and man. The father, Alwan, is anxious to see his new son from the second generation and the new bride, Jaber, grow up to attend the village assembly held at the guest house. And Jaber is dragged into the world of adults at a time when he was thirsty for having fun with his mates swimming in the river, or playing in the fruit gardens, this early rupture would ignite his first inclination to wrest his childhood from those who wished to take it all away. His haste to leave the guest house for the fun of the river cost him dearly; a fractured bone in his leg, the mujabbir who treated him placed his bone improperly. And jabber had to pay a second price a second time since his jaw infection. Jaber was now a lame duck, and the father brought him a beautiful, white pony to ride for the district school, some kilometers away.
But Jaber would soon replace his rural means of transportation, the little horse, by a metal instrument: a bicycle adorned with a white silver alarm-bell. Village kids learn riding horses and donkeys easily, iron horses may need more training. And Jaber was very slow at that, but his maternal uncle would never see the difference, or accept any lagging behind. Jaber would receive endless slaps on the face from this uncle to accelerate his learning appetite. Never had Jaber forgotten these cruel teaching techniques.
In Rome, he would remember the lessons, return to his favorite cycling hobby, as the best means of transportation even in a mega metropolis like Rome. But his Roman bike is more sophisticated than the rural one. In the fifties, political change and turmoil were simmering beneath the surface of Iraqi society. Soon the 1958 July Revolution would lead to a radical transformation in the political and, by extension land tenure, system. Among those affected by the revolution were landlords, and among their numbers was Alwan Salman. Change went beyond the political system to the very essence of people’s consciousness and social relations, however limited and slow this change might have been. Political Organizations, hitherto clandestine, emerged in the open to play an increasing and effective role. Yet, society and social configurations as a whole only partly changed in varying degrees according to the levels of education, cultural exposure and proximity to urban centers in a conservative society like Iraq, where tribal values and relations rule supreme and rigid forces and traditions hold their sway, any transformation of the established relations and values would need sustained and organized social effort which may well go beyond the mere change of political hands.
Thus, in the early phases, reform was confined to certain appearances, and the old structures remained intact, notably the attitude and position regarding women. When we keep in mind that part of bloody clashes in the countryside is caused by women or for their sake, Children’s memory would harbor such violent events. Jaber was no exception. To some of these events he was an eyewitness, or he had at least first hand accounts of other eyewitnesses, and the details took root in his mind and heart, dwelling deep in his memory, surfacing later on in his artistic images. He recalls how “sinners” were hunted night or day, chased by fire shots. If bullets went astray, or the hunter ran out of them, daggers would flash to accomplish what firearms could not do! He vividly remembers how a female “suspect’ was stabbed in the heart, and she fell, her body quivered like a slain bird, until she died. Jaber’s attitude towards women began to crystallize early on as he felt the sense of isolation and solitude his mother experienced. And the more bloody events he encounters, the more his attitude against cruelty, injustice and breach of women’s rights, is accentuated, each blood letting of women in broad daylight, including adolescent females, near the river, or in bedrooms, firmly established the ultimate primacy of old values and specified the nature of social relations with which the women were forced to comply. This atmosphere would be expressed in a great number of Jaber’s paintings: a sole, lonely and sad woman, cosmetics and makeup notwithstanding. And these canvas women seem to have no right to have desires, or to be different. She has to conform to the current traditions, to the desires of males, to a system of hierarchy. The society of men, the male community, is the value giver, the definer of status and ranks.
At this point , it is too early to anticipate the examination of the artistic presentations of this theme, but it is vital to allude to the atmosphere and the impacts, and, of course, the wounds, from which Jaber’s temperament is made, and the drive which urged him to dwell on certain topics and images more frequently. Iraq’s climate, it’s burning summer sun, the colours it generates, or the power it gives to observe the endless shades of colouring, amidst that total bareness, all this may well explain, in part, how Jaber conceives colours and why he approaches them the way he does. In some parts of the world there is a relative graded scale of hot or cold climate, and there is a smooth running shift from one season to another and from one colour to another, although seasons and colours may overlap and blend. Iraq is different. Seasons with their high or low temperatures, or their overlap, take a different form, a sort of a surprise attack. Spring is the best of seasons in Iraq, but it is the shortest.
The moment the day gets longer to herald the beginning of spring, and the people take off their heavy winter clothing to celebrate the coming beautiful time, summer strikes all of a sudden with all the heat, cruelty and lengthy duration. Iraqis wait for autumn, a hopefully merciful season, to prepare for the transition to winter, but the fall defies their expectations as a rule. Part of the fall joins summer with long hot days; another part joins winter, as if autumn is too timid to be a season in its own right. Climate in Iraq has simply two seasons summer and winter. The rest is merely a prelude for the one or the other. Climate, here does not only denote temperatures, it signifies the colours which involve nature, the shades which the painter conceives, or the way nature tints.
Two other features in the Iraqi context must be added: first, colours are “outright” to the extreme; they manifest themselves individually, each with its own autonomy, completeness, so to speak, sometimes even sharpness. This urges the artist to approach them as they have been conceived in childhood. Secondly, colours need to be seen through a prism in order to have them received clearly and authentically, because the intensity of brightness makes it too difficult to look at them or deal with them unless this intensity is broken or reduced. Iraqi architects, like Rifat Chaderchi and others. Have tried to break down heat and intensive brightness by erecting shields to protect, reduce or even prevent the direct flow of light into the buildings. We shall see, in due course, how Jaber dealt aesthetically with this phenomenon in his paintings. Lastly, in order to complete the landscape which formed the visual memory of our artist, Jaber, mention, should be made of his immediate environment, we mean: Babylon.
This ancient city, which has been fascinating artists and inspiring them across the ages, is only a few kilometers away from Jaber’s birth place. The ancient city imprinted in his imagination and consciousness a considerable amount of scenes, moral and sensual images which provided material sources for many of his creations. Original Babylon, of course, exists no more; it has been reduced into ruins, masses of substance. This was his daily addiction for years. In his memory, then, the modern ruins of Babylon would be condensed into forms of sculpture, heaps of bricks, volumes and vacuums. Perhaps, that is why Jaber decided to study sculpture at the institution of Fine Arts; and possibly this is one of the reasons why the figures in his paintings are reminiscent of statues, or emulate the latter’s spirit. These are the influences left by Babylon, what remained of it. When history is so materially substantial and contiguous it leaves its finger marks on one’s consciousness and sub-consciousness, determines future choices and artistic presentations, albeit indirectly. Before we make our “reading” into Jaber the artist through his canvas, it is vital to follow his heels in life, stop at some major poets, to pinpoint how and why he arrived at the terminal of art. By the river bank, Jaber, exhausted of swimming would rest. Lying on the soft bank, he would play with clay, mould some figures and masses.
During the collective, daily journey to and from school, there is meditation in nature with its colours, or in Babylon with its sculptures and insinuations. This atmosphere left a deep impact on the growing school boy, who was searching for the centre of gravity in mind and heart, only to find that the only response to that inner urge by which he was possessed, was plastic art. His anxious soul went to some of his elders, asking their advice. An acquaintance from Mahawil village, who was also a student at the institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad whispered into his ears that the pleasure of art was sublime, and that he should join the institute.
Jaber was in no need for provocative encouragement, since the days of his intermediary school (a three years term in between elementary and secondary schooling) he was not only thinking but, in fact, planning his future in that direction, and he asked the opinion of those elders whom he knew they would support his choice. Baghdad itself was another factor. Under urgent circumstances, after his maternal uncle had physically abused him up. He left to Baghdad in protest. His worried family searched for him in Kabala, Samara and other Townships, He was found having shelter with some far relatives in the capital. He returned to Mahawil victorious: his uncle apologized. Greater was his fascination with the mega metropolis, Baghdad, which dwarfed all the cities he had so far visited. It is time to move to this grand city. On his second visit to Baghdad, he was a student at the institute of fine arts. In the previous years, he was bound to see and explore in a very narrow space; now, by contrast, he was in Baghdad of the sixties, times of rapid change which needed rapid change which needed rapid and constant exploration and examination in every field. Jaber found himself at the beginning of the road of his old dreams. Political turmoil notwithstanding, the institute, as Jaber recalls, was an oasis of glamour, richness, education and discovery. The premises itself, with its location, architecture and gardens, was gorgeous; life in the institute was hectic and rich: drama, music, painting and sculpture halls, intellectual debates, students and tutors liaisons, women and their touches and presence in this atmosphere, lastly the active inner-relations between the institute and other colleges. In these unprecedented and unparalleled milieux, Jaber would live, continue his discoveries and explorations in every single field, the political included.
Although he had, by now, come to know the political trends well and expressed leftist leanings, he did not join, at this stage, the communist party. The time Jaber spent at the institute was important and decisive as a phase and an environment. Though he opted for sculpture, painting lectures had the most decisive influence on him. Jaber gave them a hard time, though. They admired the work the work he would start, but they were soon disappointed because Jaber not even bothered to complete what he had begun. They recognized both the early talent which distinguished him from his mates, and the laziness and digressions which led him astray. Nevertheless, some tutors were keen on developing Jaber’s wild but chaotic talent. And Jaber recalls that his tutor, Rasool Alwan bet on him, and his supportive and watchful efforts never waned. What concerned the tutor was the seeds of anxiety and discontent he found in Jaber. His other tutor, Mahr Al-din, appreciated the tasks Jaber completed but insisted the novice should destroy them all in order to follow the academic path, because mattering the academic method, in his opinion, was the truest way for better achievements. It was Mahr Al-din who observed, at this early age, that Jaber had a distinguished taste and preferences for colours. His third tutor, Shaker Hassan Al-Said, who drew Jaber’s attention to arches, curves and swords, urged him to expand his horizons through reading. The institute taught him to go beyond the world of colours into theater and cinema. These two fields of arts would further enrich his visual experiences, notably during his residence in Rome where he would have his first contacts with Italian cinema and film makers. In addition to drama, music halls at the institute attracted him for hours, where he made his first encounters with new instruments: the violin, the piano and others. Realizing the existence of a close, deep relation between Plastic Art and music, he would contemplate the lives of his fellow musicians, their motions and emotions.
The, musical concept of harmony would creep into his paintings, as the lives and passions of musicians also would. Under the influence of his tutors and older friends at the institute, Jaber was now dedicating more time for reading the most lilts and writers: Jan Paul Sartre, Alberto Moravia, Colin Wilson and others. But later he would give readings less thought, and would confine himself to reading poetry. The turbulent and swift political developments and struggles in the sixties would define the landscape and the choices; they would in fact, extend their impact to intellectual, artistic, literary and social relations, rendering any neutrality as difficult as mere external observing. Intellectual and political inclinations were thus determined at least as tendencies if not as actual affiliation. And violence which enveloped that decade left its deepest marks on the minds and hearts of most people involved.
Now for the medium landlord Alwan Salman, it was a hard time. Gone were the days when he could procure two wives, give each a cow, or provide his son with a pony or a bike. After the 1958 agrarian reforms, he was not anymore able to support his favorite son to continue his studies at the institute in Baghdad. One of his elder brothers stepped in to provide for him until he completed his academic term. The years of the institute did not create the artist in Jaber yet, but prepared him for such perspective metamorphosis. They threw him into the world of arts, cultured his talents, improved his skills and set him off on the start line of the journey, Jaber was good at sketching, had a keen sense of colours (as was observed by Rasool Alwan), received good attention from Shaker Hassan Al-Said and Mahr Al-Din, completed his first statue which was appreciated by his tutor, Miran Sadi who predicted Jaber would emerge as a prominent sculptor; yet Jaber’s desire to live art was stronger than his inclination to be productive. Institutes and academies usually provide guidance, advice of specialized technical know-how; they offer basic principles and methods, but leave the rest, what is quintessential in fact, to the creativity of the individual who wishes to tread along this path. That is why academics do not graduate artists, writers or scientists, but prepare individuals to become such in the future, provided they have the required talents and have exerted the necessary efforts to reach the level creativity. At the institute, Jaber grasped the loose end of the thread, and was determined to follow the line, if not in Iraq, then anywhere in the world.
The burning urge never waned. Before Jaber could even embark on this safari he was appointed as Fine Arts teacher in Karbala, a conservative shrine city, which offered a window for contemplation, self-scrutiny rather than artistic work. Such a productive endeavor would have required better stimulus and more favorable conditions. There he was teaching the elementary lessons of drawing and painting to pupils who had not the slightest interest in the topic! the job, however, established his financial autonomy with a relatively handsome monthly salary of 35 ID (more than $ 100 ); yet he was relentlessly looking for the realm of art rather than the sanctuary of living stability. He had his studio; the general circumstances, however, were not only frustrating but political crashes aggravated them, rendering energies wasteful. His father, Alwan came to visit his studio in Karbala. His joy was unprecedented as he saw his son a respected teacher in the holy shrine city, with a studio where colours turn in the hands of his son into beautiful things. Back in the village, Alwan enthusiastically gave account of Jaber’s life and beautiful colours. Jaber, however, was too bored in the city. An offer by a Karbala teacher to swap transferred him to Kirkuk in the hope of seeing the light at the end of the forlorn, barren tunnel. At the beginning of the new term, he found himself in a new city and a new climate.
Few months on, he realized that Kirkuk was not the city of his dreams, and that teaching was the last job in the world to fit him. New resolutions were in the making. In his search for a way out, he recalled the words of his tutors on the cities of the world they had been to, the experiences they had had there, the lessons they had had; he echoed deep in his heart their advice that unless one visited the capitals of art one stood no chance on becoming an artist. Being there was a must. One should visit their museums, study their statues in public squares, see and touch great works of art, get directly acquainted with prominent artists, examine their canvases, or watch them producing these. The boring nights of Kirkuk were too remote; even his master could not think of going there without government scholarships. He had neither the sufficient resources, nor knew how to get them. Anxiety during the day, sleeplessness at night, and constant search in between, a search for the means to make the dream come true. Had he not kept the ethos of childhood and desire to discover, he would have never dared to belittle the gigantic difficulties or distain the great obstacles and challenges awaiting his departure
From Iraq to embark on his real and great safari for art. Being to this point a sculptor,
And having in mind that the greatest possibility for him was to complete his study in this field, he focused his dreams on the Rome, the sanctuary and haven for sculpture worldwide .anther factor: he had a school mate in Rome who had arrived a year before, and wrote him several letters describing the beauty of the city and the possibilities it offered. A tutor also advised him it was possible to work and study at one and the same time .Still, Rome was too emote and beyond his means .he had tow choices, either to drop the idea from his head for good ,or embark on adventure with the little money he had and let whatever will be will be . before the year 1972 drew to an end, Jaber procured the necessary documents and started the long awaited trip for the city of his dreams .when he bid Baghdad farewell, he had only 100$ in his pocket .and that was all what he had in the world .he spent an overnight in Beirut .arriving at Rome’s airport, Jaber carried out the first advice he had from his master, Mohammed Ali Shaker: take Bus no 67 to city .so he did. He spent his first night at his old school mate’s place the years of dreams and concerns over the trip were over, but the day of the great challenge began: how to survive? He never hesitated. On the second day of his arrival, he rented a room in a modest hotel, bought a painting stand; ad went to Piazza Navona to actually commence his great journey in the realm or art and creativity.
The beginning, Jaber said, was extremely difficult: suffering anxiety, living hardships and language barriers had their tool. Worst still was the rigid requirements for any pizza navona would –be artist: the ability to make accurate portraits in few minutes! The pressure on him was tremendous during the early days of Navona. He was willing to accept any low payment for any caricature he did: 1000 liras for a decent portrait and 300 liras for the caricature the piazza Navona days absorbed the greater part of his energies; if also affected his style when producing his own creations, if he had any time left for such callings if the artist’s spirit retains its vitality, demands and awareness, it would in the end have its achievement, since the environment itself provides much of the required elements. Not before long Jaber would register at Fine Arts College at Rome, studying sculpture under Grico until 1975, and painting under Gentlini until 1978. Most of his leisure time was systematically spent in museums and art galleries in Venice, Florence and other cities. The great Italian cinema, notably the movies by the great film makers, Fellini and Pasolini, would be in the focus of his intensive attention.
The hard time in Piatza Navona notwithstanding, Jaber could work energetically enough to provide for his own living in a very short time so as to be able to continue his academic study and focus his energies on true, artistic activity. In this way he could hold his first exhibition in 1975. To be followed as a matter of course by annual exhibitions until 1979. Thereafter he had a short pause during which he took part in collective exhibitions and engaged in corporate activities. If we may split his career into distinctive stages, it was the Italian who discovered the artist lurking inside Jaber, refined him and brought him into relief. When asked about the extend to which he was enriched by his residence in Rome, he would reply: “ It is the Italians who discovered I was an artist, and it is them who encouraged me into artistic production. “ This reply may involve a sense of gratitude and a confession as to the extent Rome fostered and promoted him, but undoubtedly the artist hidden in him was in need for a spur in order to emerge and shine in brilliance. After Baghdad, Rome was the incubator and then the spark igniter, the more so since his liaisons with the Italian artistic milieu increased and expanded. His viewers were, first and foremost, Italian.
To them he addressed himself, although he used his own idiom which distinguished him from Italian artists proper. This feature was recognized and reiterated by so many art critics who examined his canvas. The Italian stage is the most vital and important phase in Jaber’s career. It equipped him well and gave him the opportunity to exhibit. The more exhibitions he had the more his works were sought after by those who had a good taste for art, and the less his reliance on the Piazza Navona with its tourists-oriented, street-drawing-for-living came to be. Now he was dedicating more to his studio and to consolidate his career as a creative painter. His Italian connections notwithstanding, Jaber’s efforts to liaise with the Arab and the Iraqi Circle never waned. Together with his Arab and Iraqi friends residing in Italy, he exchanged views, had debates, and took part in collective exhibitions. His relations with Iraqi Artists in Europe notably in France, Holland and Germany, grew, warmer. These relations formed what may termed as: The migrant painting. For some years, Jaber was almost single-minded in his concentration on re-examining what he had done, scrutinizing his own thoughts, or the role the artist should pay, notably the painter.
In this period of rediscovering, he passionately followed the new galleries and exhibitions of great classical artists, preparing himself for a new leap. He painted little in those years, but these were years of contemplation and maturity on the way of reaching out for his own style. To posses one’s own style, is a great stride forward. Because the style is the artists, as it were, or it is the differentia specifica which makes him what he actually is, rather than being a mere replica of another, no matter how far bright his emulation of his master might be. The unique style is the fruit of long and arduous work and deep contemplation; it is the culmination of this effort and thinking. True, and the original artist never stops developing, never remains in one phase, but moves from one stage to another, changing his colours, or the techniques of his brush, he may even opt for large canvases, or turn again to small ones; he may try different materials as he strives to experiment; he may even endeavor new experiments with new techniques and tools; yet, his ego is what it is, reveals him, betrays his signs, his ethos, even if the canvas bears no signature. After this prelude, Jaber returned to the galleries trying this time to display his work beyond Italy where he had already won several awards in addition to the recognition by the public and critics alike. His exhibitions began now to move to Vienna, Liege, Belgium, London, Damascus, Amman-Jordan, and beyond. As a result many of his paintings are displayed now in various European, notably Italian, and some Arab museums. At this point, it should be mentioned that Jaber was ever keen on having liaisons and dialogue between Arab artists at home and their migrant colleagues, so as to interact, maintain bridges and exchange experiences to enrich both groups.
This is all the more important since the forced exodus into exile has lingered on for too long, and homeland has become remote, or only a fading memory while years are dragging on with no chance for return! This study does not intend to examine the full range of Jaber’s work from beginning until the present. Our aim is first and foremost, to explore certain works which are accessible and help to open up a dialogue with this artist whose paintings constitute a quantitative addition to Modern Arab Plastic Art, and a remarkable achievement in – Italy and perhaps beyond. Jaber’s potential promises brighter and more important prospects, notably as he is keen on engaging other artistic activities which may involve theater and other expressive media.
We have already noted that at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad or at the Fine Arts Academy in Rome, Jaber studied sculpture. It was also mentioned that during his childhood, molding masses of clay available at river banks into figures and statues to express his inner passion for creativity was his early “artistic” experiment. There is a multitude of factors which accumulated in time: his early manipulation of clay as the only available material; the wealth of historical and cultural symbols deposited in his memory, even in his sub consciousness, which he met in Iraq and other countries of the region: archeological sites, dead cities and ancient monuments and constructions from time immemorial, presenting themselves in the landscape in the form of colossal masses and sculptures, notably in Babylon, These and other aspects were catalysts igniting the passions for emulation. Another factor is the artistic achievement in modern Iraq, notably in sculpture, monuments and architecture, above all the freedom monument made by Jawad Salim, an outstanding feature of contemporary Baghdad which stood at the gate of the capitol for any visitor, and was the focus of attentive consideration and appreciation by art scolars, critics and the public at large. These and perhaps other factors, even Jaber’s own physical formation, made him more inclined, at the beginning at least, to take sculpture as a subject of academic specialization. Jaber recalls that Jawad Salim’s sculptures were among the first few things which attracted his attention when he first arrived in Baghdad. For modern Iraq and Arab Art, Jawad Salim was one of the most outstanding innovative and original figures, in terms of achievement and authorization, in particular the effort he made to link modern art with its Sumerian, Babylonian, Arabic and Islamic history.
Jawad Salim’s period of time And the one following it were the richest in Iraqi’s history of art. Not only could they arouse a widespread interest which went beyond the narrow artistic circles, but they had set a record in achievement which testifies to the richness of this period. Not surprisingly Jaber chose sculpture and continued his study in this field in Rome. Little sculpture, however, came out of his hands. He forsake the chisel and took the brush, replaced bronze or stone by canvas and oil paint. It is of course useful to trace the causes of this transformation, but suffice it here to note that the spirit of the mass remained in Jaber’s paintings. Even more: the smell of dust, or perhaps of old clay, is strongly present in a number of his canvases. In L’altra accia del Potere (the other face of power) dated 1980, we encounter Judia in his macabre, yet disturbed, pose. The same effect is also observable in La Moto. 1984, and many other plates. This is not a defect, but a method applied by many artists who combine sculpture and drawing.
Suffice it to mention Jawad Salim as an example i8n the Arab World. In Jaber’s canvas there is a centre of gravity, a focus, whereas the other parts symbolize what vacuum is in sculpture, i.e. that these parts are scattered and harmonized to serve the focal point so as to lend this centre a strong and lucid existence. In order that the mass may appear in bold relief, it should be posited at the most suitable point, the most appropriate space. Such a positioning focuses the eyes of the viewer at the centre, then moves them gradually to other parts, links these parts together, and establishes the interrelations, the coherence and the harmony of all segments. Because the spirit of the mass has such a cardinal importance, it amounts to dealing with the matter the way a sculptor does, to chop off or add. When there is a need to remove the irrelevant, Jaber, never hesitates to cut off, when, by contrast, there is need to add details, they are added. All this is meant to create some vacuum and deploy it in – the service of the focal point or the centre of gravity.
In sculpture, the wood or stone mass is relatively large. In the process of manipulation and molding, the mass is reduced to the object the artist has in mind In lieu of the large mass, Jaber brought a spacious canvas he is one of few Arab artists who paint huge canvases and finds himself in them. Most painters usually resort to relatively small plates in order to control, handle and tan them, so to speak. Jaber does the opposite: he finds his freedom and efficiency when moving on a vast canvas, a vital feature we miss in small paintings. This is not to establish a com purgative or superlative degrees of size and volume… Jaber has already produced medium sized paintings which bear the finger prints of a sculptor, as the case in Vecchio Vagabondo, the wandering old man, the figures here look as if they are molded of black or bronze, the more so as the structure of the painting establishes a strong relation between the character or the figure and the space surrounding it, as if the space was created as a place for the statue on a solid pedestal. Even the selected colours were derived from the black mixed with shades of white to lend the borders and limit, rather than the facial features, a clearer relief. As if we were witnessing, in the dusk of an early evening, a statue with lights shed only on its upper part to make it shine and burn.
The same applies to Fuocco, 50×70 cm, whether in terms of its structure, or the composition of space, as these two aspects seem to have sprung from a sculptor’s vision in a first place. Jaber’s passion for huge canvases is augmented by an ambition to find a chance in the future for mural painting, or theater decorations in which painting is integrated into the very fabric of drama, a form of overlap and multi- art interaction. This feature, springing from sculpture as it were, is manifested in a multitude of works, which testifies to the possibility of deploying some aspects of one art into another.
The figure or the mass which occupies a central position in the canvas sends beams, so to speak, or produces parts which lead an autonomous existence from the mass, yet they retain their symbiosis with it. There is a high degree of resilience hardly found in other artists paintings. The work here is not the arithmetic outcome of lumping the parts up together; it is embedded in the interrelations constructed between the parts and the centre, and among the parts themselves. Any disequilibrium in the structure, any disharmony in those inter-relations, would weaken the whole or even demolish it. The delicate balance, then, requires accurate knowledge and sophisticated professionalism in order to define the centre periphery correlations, and their reciprocal harmonizing effect. Before driving his chisel to carve the stone, the sculptor examines the nature of the substance in his hands; to what extent it may sustain the pressure and strain of different parts. Otherwise, any error at any stage may destroy the work as a whole. Jaber wanders in this vast space, realizing, intuitively some times, in which direction he should move, and what he should do. The forms he has may be vague in his mind, their correlations might be hazy, but as he continues his wandering journey on the canvas, the forms emerge lucid, and the amorphous cloud involving the correlations disappears.
This process is gradual, cumulative, and is achieved by dint of diligent work, and expertise gained long experiences and suffering. This exactly resembles the experience of the nomad in the desert, who searches for water and decides, driven by survival instinct, where to go. He is guided by the smell of the wind, the motion of the stars and the damp he senses. All these factors provide him with an inner intuition which guides without utterance. Jaber says when he stands before a white canvas and carries the brush, he has no preconceived schema, no diaries, sometimes even no idea, no clear cut concept of what should be painted. But the moment he is engaged with the colours, usually he stretches great amounts on the tabula rasa, he is possessed by a wild passion and sets off on his journey. At first phase, he works swiftly, a sort of rapid, uncontrollable stream or feverish outflow. The instant the figures and masses take clear shape, his passions calm, even retreat, and professionalism and long expertise step in. With tranquility and self-composure, Jaber displays his mastery in harmonizing the dialogue of colours, forms and parts, to the degree of perfection. This is how the journey of colours begins. This in way means that each plate is worked by the same method, or set off on the same trajectory with similar stages. It is the psychological state of mind which dictates the method, the range of vision, the cluster of colours and the nature of figures. In some instances, the canvas is already painted, in part or whole, in Jaber’s imagination or memory. All what Jaber has to do is to externalize the images.
This exteriorization demands skill and artistry to conjure up additional details that imbue the work with breath. I had the chance to observe Jaber working in his studio. Although artists in general are keen on preserving their privacy, jealously guarding moments of inspiration, shunning away from inquisitive eyes. I watched him closely and saw a child playing. As he mixed the colours, grasped the brush, or scratched the canvas in successive strokes, or took a step forward towards the easel or took few steps backward to check this detail, that spot, he was a joyful child, playing, having fun, singing, encouraging himself, laughing or dancing, pausing for a while, then continuing his ritual. He did all that spontaneously although he was aware that there was this peeping other watching him. Jaber admitted he felt uneasy, even anxiety, when he felt he was being watched during work. For him it was a terrifying cage. Even his wife Rabi, who accompanied him to Damascus in the winter of 1996, was kindly asked to leave the place they rented which was transformed into a studio. There, many important works were completed, including a portrait of Sa’d Allah Wannoos. Bieng alone was a must to give him utmost liberty of creation! These details may well serve to prove that freedom of play is complete when the player moves as he pleases, without shackles or fear, when he feels he is there for pure pleasure. And this is only achieved when he retains his own privacy!
If the artist prefers privacy at work, the question then is why in most of his paintings he is confined to one figure? This is a constant feature that is verified the moment we go over his catalogues, including the plates printed in this book, the majority of paintings contain one single character. In addition to its solitude, this mono character is fraught with distress, if not deep grief, even if it endeavors to show signs of joy, notably in colours. Solitude and grief are the fabric most recurrent in his pictures. With outstanding mastery, Jaber would the countenance to hide any direct signs of grief; sometimes he blurs them beyond recognition. Even if we could not instantly detect sorrow in the eyes, we find many signs and evidences bearing witness to its existence: desperate waiting, a tired standing woman, overwhelmed shoulders, lowered heads, bewildered hands, or fatigued legs, a deadly dryness of the soul which is cloaked but not thrown into invisibility. All these and other manifestations betray sorrow, bringing it into bold relief, palpable and traceable when we closely examine the subject. Even moments of pleasure, an encounter of man and women, as in several images, seem like stolen instants, vague, ambiguous, as if they were an exception in our life, because grief is the dominant and the omnipresent, although such instants are not bereft of passionate erotica.
In L’altra Faccia de Potere we see the woman as a toy: she is trying somehow to please the man by showing of her talents in belly dancing, the man is remote, almost absent, or oblivious. Is this not a proof showing the extent of the women’s unhappiness? In Origa there is a great deal of female nudity and male lust, yet the woman’s face implies she is being raped. The same state is found in Ottello e Desdemona. This is not to imply that only women are sad in his paintings, but they are prone to distress and sorrow. If males are sad, they encounter it with muscular strength, seriousness, suppressing any inclination to admit their sorrow or depression, while females seem more frank and audacious as they readily admit what agonizes them. In the “Jawahiri” the eyes harbor that sorrow while at the unknown faraway, the unattainable, the pride in his posture notwithstanding. This is ascertained by the motion of his fingers which carry what goes beyond skepticism to sheer bewilderment. If we look closely at his Tango (1995), we enjoy the sight of beautiful female legs; yet these legs are not in a state of joy and engagement, but they are in withdrawal, retreating and departing, as if the game is drawing to an end. As we look at the woman herself, we feel she is grief incarnated, desperate in her pose, convinced that no one will ever come to her, assured that it is useless even to wait, the whiteness that envelopes her and extends before her, on her left, or down below her right foot, seems a shroud of the dead rather than a wedding dress! Solitude and grief are the markers of Jaber’s figures.
A scrutinizing examination would reveal that even in the jubilant and gratified life we find in some paintings, there lurks some kind of sorrow, anxiety, agony, even madness, angst may not be directly accessible to the observer, a second examining glance reveals the other reality. Sa’d Allah Wanoos saw his portrait painted by Jaber and commented: “He has grasped and recorded the critical moment. He did not portray ailment, but never alluded to healthiness, because he was bewildered, intrigued; he posed a question, and engaged the others in the search for an answer! “What helps Jaber to record these critical moments of transformation and mutation, is the thin, lace-like clouds he hurls over his figures. Earlier, I have mentioned that light in Iraq is too bright to deal with without a protective curtain. Iraqi architects like Rifat Chaderchi had contrived techniques to break light and manipulate it.
Such a radiant amount of light is too difficult to absorb in a painting. And Jaber would deploy his artistic techniques to throw on his figures a lace-like cover to keep their physiognomy in the dark, because he wants to keep part of the emotions and inner vibrations buried in the hearts of his creations. We can hardly see eyes, or parted lips, or rounded shoulders in that semi dimness he deliberately creates. Hence we are compelled to stare, gaze, examine and wonder. The viewer thus becomes part of the painting, because the latter has transformed into a question, and he has to take part in the search for an answer. At this point we arrive at the central station in Jaber’s artistic journey: colour. The eye is the window through which we peep into the work. And this world’s first and foremost forms and colours. The first step to deal with this surrounding world is to cast a look at it, see it as it stands, as a visual given. Only thereafter come correlations, symbols and interpretations.
Jaber says he believes in this “axiom” the poet is blind and the painter is mute, and I hold unto this saying. “The painter is bound to examine the world with his sight, replacing words by forms and sounds by colours. Colours are his words, his expressive idiom. He has no other media to allude to, no method of representation of things other than colours and formations. Because no matter how eloquent the other methods may be, they would not lead him to the desirable destination. Since Jaber is literally a mine of colours, his mode of understanding the world is embodied in colours and forms. The outstanding Italian critic, Dario Michachi, who followed Jaber’s career from an early stage, says: “Modern artists have elaborate research in the music of colour. Jaber has this music, he knows how to construct and compose in a style of his own. If we re-examine any single this colour is never repeated.” This is what Heraclitus meant when he said that man never swims in the river twice, because colour itself changes with the changing psychological state, with the subject matter, and with the correlations between the structure of the painting and its colours. Jaber’s relation to colours is unique among Arab painters. He has an extraordinary, if not unprecedented, deposit of tints, tinges, colours, paints and shades. In 1985 The Municipality of Rome awarded Jaber a prize as the best artist. He was the first alien to receive this prize which had been accorded to the great film maker, Fellini. And Jaber received this honour as the best colourist, one imbued with a uniquely delicate sensibility to colours.
Dario says: “Jaber creates forms that have something deep, tragic and condensed, all with a profound sense of colours, a sense we hardly find by any Italian painter… The colours seem to vibrate on the surface of the figure, like a volcanic salvo bursting out of a secret crater. “Jaber’s colours are the sum total of memory and desire; they are his vision of what really ought to be rather than an image of what reality is. Colours are his weapon to create a better, more refined, more harmonized, and more humane world. The colours of the existing world are so pale, bleak and cold that they aggravate human agene and deepen human solitude and grief, the very thing Jaber detests and resists. There is unanimity among foreign critics who viewed Jaber’s work that his colours are oriental. The Belgium poet and critic, Riginaal Coil (Koli) says: “ Jaber is a resume of the richness of the orient… “The colours which settle finally here, where they always ought to be, create some sort of an uproar, but it is a reassuring sound… the gliding streams of yellow or green seem to break away from the canvas, but we can anticipate that they would not do so.
The Italian painter and critic, Eneo Calabria says: “Jaber belongs to the generation of memory. He is never urged to achieve an end or a desire to build a phantasy or a museum of colours, he is driven by the love of life and draws from life. On Jaber’s choices, he says: “They are a colourful festival coming from memory and dreams” because “he is first class painter, full of vitality, of original, poetic wonder; he tries to create a unique style for both his life and painting, which urges us to re-examine things”. Dario adds: “Before my eyes came a stream of paintings with amazing colours which seem to have erupted from an active volcano and petrified like layers and masses of rock on the surface; and the eye can touch them the way we touch with our hands, because the colours contain wild sensibility. Then the critic wonders: “Wherein do the poetics spring of Jaber’s colours lie? It does not lie in chemistry: less in colour tubes. The crucible is the deep psyche, the fabric of action, there where the blood flows, where the past is fused with the present, where every single thought, every sense and sensibility find their own opposite colours and necessary vigoru which condense on the canvas. “Dario concludes: Jaber’s roots are very deep; his paintings outshine Italian light; he is a human biography” his introductory notes to Jaber’s latest exhibition in the spring of 1997, the Italian poet Tonio Guera says: “I thought of Goya. This is a new Goya who throws a handful of colours”.
This amount of quotations is more than enough to have an idea of how European critics view Jaber’s work and colours, in order to confirm that these colours are derived from here, from the Orient. Some of our Arab “critics” however, have been trying to relate him to the occident, because, unlike Jaber, they have never seen the colours of the sun and never discovered art around them. One this score, Jaber himself has this to say: “The painter may well confine himself to the visual manifestation of the object. These concepts are appropriate to the orient, because we are the heirs of language. For me the object is composed of colour probabilities. (That is why) in addition to my colourism, I consider myself an expressionist artist; I find in the human being expressive tastes which enable me to create subjects: a hand motion, a facial emotion, a dance, clothes…I do not care much about being categorized in a school of art, what I do care for is to be truthful in my expressive endeavor through the canvas. Iraqi climate, which tendered Jaber’s childhood, is governed by two seasons: summer and winter; the summer is long and hot, with lengthy days of bright, radiating sun under which every single thing appears shining, luminous, crystal clear as if it were naked; the other seasons and the night, create an anti-thesis in light and colours: dusk is tender, dressed in black though.
In this environment colours are often candid, outright, and autonomous. When sunshine falls on things and beings these become naked, slim, tending to whiteness. Numerous paintings by Jaber are dripped in inspiring, affectionate white. When the night falls, things and beings are cloaked in blackness, turned into ghostly forms, salvaged only by moonlight, or lit by feeble lanterns. They appear wobbling, faded amidst blackness and greenness, tainted by a glimpse of light from remote stars, or wild meteors which leave behind luminous ambers scattered ping it into its own details. Under such lights, colours assume a different garb relative to other places. They do not overlap, or gradually appear, or camouflage themselves; they are outright, outspoken, and even sharp. In other places, it is too difficult for any colour to break away other colours. Or attain its independence; that is why they mix, fuse and loose their originality. When the impressionists appealed to the open, to nature, the colours of the impressionists of the north seemed quite different from the colours of their mates in the south. Attempting to explore the characteristics of light and colours, many impressionists headed south, some overseas, to produce different paints on the other side of the Mediterranean. Iraqi painters had the stout courage of the first generation of the impressionists.
They boldly left their studios for outdoor practice in order to choose novel subjects and colours. This drive distinguished their experimentation in colours and helped them score important achievements which were handed down from one generation to another. If Faiq Hasan is a pioneer in this respect, Dhia Azawi is no less dashing and courageous in his adventures in the realm of colours. He created his own stout, outright colours. Jaber is the faithful sum of this habitat. His insight guided and widened his experimentsin and perception and selection of colours. Yet he is different from both Faiq Hasan and Azawi. Hasan subdued his colours to the subject, and colours became a mere predicate. Azawi, by contrast, represented the other extreme, by creating a dialogue between colours through antagonistic colouring. He went too far in his colourist adventure and bold explorations.
Jaber on the other hand embarked on a different journey. Personification is pivotal in Jaber’s works. True he is not interested in the subject as he had been earlier; in fact he transcended the content by reducing its effects. Unlike Hasan, Jaber does not subsume colours to the subject, but rather establishes an indirect relation or a dialogue between the tow. And colours seem to burst out of the subject, or render it exploded; they enable it to reach the best state of self- manifestation, without letting themselves dissolve in it. In many examples, the colour is in itself the subject rather than the predicate, but this is achieved without casting personification or incarnation into marginality. Colours here penetrate the figure which is destined to be the subject matter of the canvas, and this penetration or integration is so unique that any change would destroy the whole work. As the Sudanese critic, Fathi Othman, said: “Jaber strives to explore the changing and innovative correlations between colours through the object, to view spaces as colour correlations which produce infinite visual pleasure. It is a process of composition and exploration, thus canvas starts but never ends”. With Jaber, in as much as colours provoke the creation of the subject, the latter itself becomes an integrated structure of colours.
This feature lends his work a distinguished and renewable flavour. The delicate sense of colouring from a remote corner deep in the memory or dreams, turn colours into visual and psychological atmospheres. Jaber’s colours may be seen through the subject, or as a spectrum of paint correlations encompassing a subject or a state of mind. Jaber is neither lyrical or empirical as a colourist, personification is still an important part of his paintings; that is why his pictures are not only confined to dialogue among colours, or to decorative ornamentation or manifestation of mastery skill; in fact they tend to reflect a vision, an ability to deploy colours in a certain context so that they may reveal a novel energy and power, or that we, as viewers, may discover this energy and power which we were unable to grasp or interact with, until Jaber had them reassembled, restructured and harmonized in a new context. Perhaps words like assembling or structuring and harmonizing seem to cold to depict the true essence of the case, because Jaber treats colors to get at their deepest essence, or spirit, so to speak. This essence or spirit can in no way manifest itself unless it is intrinsically harmonized, and set into dialogue with the viewers eyes to tell him novel things which had not existed in colours before when they were neutral, or when they are presented by other painters. Some critics have already indicated the influence of artists like Kokoschka, Munch, Nolde or Frances Bacon on Jaber’s works in general, and his colours in particular. I wish to add few other names whose themes and colours Jaber admired, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, or Marwan Qassab Bashi.
These influences have different meanings and implications which are too complex to go beyond, they signify, however, that Jaber is at the heart of modern Fine Arts movement in as much as he is uniquely different. It is not so easy to categorize Jaber as a disciple in this or that school of art, because the method of categorization applied by art historians and critics are meant to simplify presentation, and make any reading for the artist’s work lucid, or classify his common features with other artists. This, however, does not take into account the particular, the unique, the different, leading to generalized, often inaccurate or insufficient judgement. Jaber abhors being caged in a fixed category or mould; he is suffused with the desire to surpass himself continuously, clinging to his most cherished motives: discovery. Though some themes are recurrent in his works, the particulars vision and in every single picture are different. Colours are the most outstanding aspects of difference. Each colour is dictated by the psychological state of mind, and this state is never repeated.
It is the product of the moment and slips away when the moment is gone. I had lengthy discussions with Jaber about two of his canvases, the first of which is: The Washing Hanger (Damascus 1987), which was dripped with whiteness. He was so fond of it that he decided to keep it for himself. It was, however, sold out to an art collector. Jaber tried to reproduce a replica but failed after several attempts. Then he gave up. The second picture is: The Poet. The canvas was swimming in light, a milky white light. The picture was completed, but the fate of the poet impelled Jaber to add all shades of green, so that would signify the hope for the future, or symbolize an ever-green soil. To this very day, Jaber deplores the absence of the old white version buried under thick layers of other colours. This suggests that a true artist never repeats himself even if he so desired! When we think of Jaber’s women we observe common features, yet each and every one of them is qualitatively different, nevertheless we can safely say without hesitation: this woman belongs to Jaber, the way we identify Renoir’s women with utmost certainty. The colour here is what defies, gives flavour, while it reflects the psychological mood; it also constitutes the end result of long, arduous experiences which led him to construct his own language that distinguishes him from others.
Though Jaber’s childhood maintains its impact on his colours, chromatic colours directly affect the eye and arouse inspiration, but these effects quickly vanish. The red colour, notably when it is stretched over vast spaces, is similarly dangerous. In this regard, economy and discretion in dealing with the red is advisable. Jaber has many successful works which red is hidden or fused with other colours. The tour with Jaber’s colours generates visual delight and poses cardinal questions, since it impels us to reconsider our concept of colours around us, and help us see them differently. And the artist who can help his viewers see things differently is a true artist who adds to our faculty of seeing the faculty of intuitiveness. Perhaps this is what most artists aspire to. This flow of colours, this innovative and renewed richness of colouring, this infinite childhood of vision and discovery, lead me to conclude: this artist has enabled us to see forms, figures and colours in a more beautiful way; he also has encouraged asking questions too!