Mysa Kafil-Hussain on Jaber Alwan

Born in 1948, Jaber Alwan hails from a small, rural village near the ancient city of Babylon, a city which has inspired artists, architects and historians for generations. Alwan was no different: an imaginative and creative visionary from his youth (he would spend hours as a child moulding clay at river banks into small statues), he explored the ruins and imagined the vivid images of its glorious past. The artistic legacy of Babylon stayed with him when he moved to Baghdad in 1966, enrolling in the Institute of Fine Art to study sculpture, which was then Alwan’s primary artistic passion, and was especially reinforced after seeing the works of Jewad Selim upon arriving in Iraq’s capital.

He spent his time exploring the campus and immersed in the art, culture and debates between students and professors, finding himself encouraged to read extensively and study widely, feeling no limit whatsoever to the potential intellectual and creative discoveries. This was further enforced by a host of master artists passing on their knowledge to a young Alwan: Rasool Alwan, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Muhammed Muhraddin and Miran Sa’di to name a few, all taught him a range of artistic skills (Sa’adi saw great promise in Alwan’s sculptural skills in particular), but also encouraged him to seek inspiration without geographical or cultural constraints.
Alwan graduated in 1970, and moved to Karbala to begin a well-paid teaching post, however despite establishing a studio in the city which gave him the space to create, Alwan became bored in his new environment and transferred to Kirkuk for the new term. Becoming disillusioned with teaching and not settling into Kirkuk as well as he had hoped, Alwan sought a way out of not only the city, but out of Iraq. In 1972, Alwan arrived in Rome with the necessary paperwork and $100 in his pocket, seeking out a new home and a world of new inspiration. Settling in Rome was tough, making ends meet by painting portraits in Piazza Navona, navigating a language barrier and suffering immense anxiety, but he soon enrolled into the Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied sculpture under Emilio Greco (1913-1995) and moved on to painting, which he studied under Franco Gentilini (1909-1981), graduating in 1975 and 1978 respectively. However, beyond the school walls, he knew the real education was in observing the world around him: in a conversation with Alwan in 2022, he remembers a conversation with his teacher, who asked him “why did you come to Rome?” to which Alwan responded “I want a degree”. His teacher calmly replied: “you don’t need a degree here; Rome will teach you, not this academy”.
Alwan held his first exhibition in 1975, with annual exhibitions until 1979 and then joined larger group exhibitions with his peers. By this point, his followers were predominantly Italian and not Iraqi, with Rome providing the space for him to truly grow as an international artist. Seeing the work of masters such as Carravagio, Rafael and Michelangelo inspired Alwan to push his work further, as well as modern European trends including futurism, art povera and also the cinematography of Italian cinema. However, he still maintained his connection with the Arab and Iraqi world through friends he made living in Rome and throughout Europe, and some years later also began exhibiting in cities such as Amman and Damascus in addition to the European capitals. He kept updated with news from Iraq, lobbied for the rights of Iraqis and against the war with Iran, and the rich colours of his homeland started to seep into his painting palette, especially from the 1980s onwards. Alwan, a self-described “nomad”, was influenced by so many things he had encountered – nature, women, music, European art – but, although his time in Babylon, Baghdad, Karbala and Kirkuk left a lasting impression, he maintains that it wasn’t so much Iraq and Iraqi art that impacted on him, but more so his professors in Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts. Rasool Alwan taught him German expressionism and encouraged him to travel to Germany, always supporting the young artist’s endeavours, whilst Shakir Hassan Al Said taught him art theory and encouraged him to read extensively, pushing him to observe the shapes around him. Muhammed Muhraddin noticed Alwan’s eye for colour and emphasised the importance of academic achievement, with all of his tutors studying abroad and bringing back the lessons they learned across the world to enthusiastic Iraqi art students. Alwan remembers his tutors fondly, and especially how they taught him how to plan, sketch, build canvases and use form and colour. His overall time at the Institute was one of constant learning, exposing him to art beyond its traditional visual forms and into theatre, cinema, and later in Rome, music, where he truly felt the connection between art and music and the resonance between artist and musician.
Music plays such a significant role in Alwan’s work, and especially in his later paintings. His 2008 artwork entitled ‘Musician’ (oil on canvas, 92 x 142 cm) is a vision of subtle movement and solemn, muted dynamism, executed flawlessly by Alwan’s brush and dark palette. Alwan admits himself that, in his long career, he does not think he has made a painting without listening to music. He does not wish for his creativity to be governed by the canvas, preferring the music, and the environment around him, to govern his creativity. “Music moves my brush, music and the musician…it’s a different planet, a different world”, Alwan muses, who in this artwork has painted a musician also lost in his music — eyes closed, allowing the melody to guide his body in the darkness. The musician plays his accordion, obscured and shrouded by this darkness, leaving us as viewers desperately trying to pierce into this musical moment and experience the rhythm and beauty which Alwan has coated with distant mystery. When writing on Alwan’s work, the late Abdul Rahman Munif wrote many years ago that this technique of Alwan’s was to “keep part of the emotions and inner vibrations buried in the hearts of his creations”, an approach used skilfully in this example, but with the burst of vibrant colour from the musician’s hand giving us a momentary insight into the beautifully vivid and expressive rhythms being created.
Alwan tries to get the viewer to take part in the composition, striving to – in the words of Munif – “search for an answer”. His use of colour in these immersive canvases goes far beyond an enveloping darkness and extends into the most striking of colours, which has consistently been Alwan’s primary tool in communicating the depth of his emotions. In his untitled 2005 artwork (oil on panel, 132 x 147.5 cm) in the Dubai Collection, he paints a lone woman sitting in a vast, homely space, saturated in a piercing, bright, yellow hue. Many of Alwan’s painted protagonists are depicted alone, and especially his paintings of women, born out of witnessing the isolation his mother felt during her lifetime and the suffering and solitude experienced by women in all societies, manifesting into an intentional portrayal of a morose, lonely woman, fading into her surroundings. In speaking with Alwan, he himself has emphasised the importance of space in his figural work, with the figure itself submerged in the emptiness of the space it inhabits. Rather than seeing this as solely a vision of loneliness and despair, he sees the merging of figure and environment as a way for them to find their freedom: “every person needs space to develop, flourish and exist”. In addition to this perceived freedom, he also ensures that the figure becomes the focal point of the image, taking ownership of the room even if they occupy minimal space. In this painting in particular we see the German expressionist influences in Alwan’s training, a movement which was marked with a desire to express the artist’s feelings through simple shapes, bright colours and expressive brushstrokes. Alwan’s soft, yet spirited application of paint ensures we feel as though we have encountered a window into another hazy world, rather than any attempt at detailed realism, and his colours immediately instil a sense of exuberance and warmth, in direct contrast with the apparent seclusion and sadness. Alwan, in this painting as well as so many others, creates a dialogue of colours which takes the viewer on an emotional journey, but also a harmonious journey of colour: orange to yellow to green to blue.
So many aspects of Alwan’s work, his personality and his experience feel essential in understanding his oeuvre and its roots. Munif wrote that he was characterised by one defining trait, that being “infancy”, and a desire to explore the notion of childhood and the wonders of discovery and play. When asking Alwan to elaborate further on this, his response was that this infancy Munif speaks of comes out from inside him through a need for, and a love of freedom, stressing that “every person has an inner child…a child plays with creativity and strives to discover”. This inherent need to learn, discover and experience life and the world around him truly is like that of a child discovering its environment through play, realised through a very physical and mental experience of emotion (joy, sadness, solitude), music and colour. Abandoning the rooted motifs and techniques of his peers and predecessors in Iraq, and not abiding by the limitations of any European school or movement, Alwan ensures that neither he nor his paintings can be defined by any rigid geographical or academic understanding, instead choosing complete creative freedom and endless artistic discovery.