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A Longing for Baghdad Infuses Iraqi’s Art

Though images of his country dominate his art, Ahmad AlKarkhi hasn’t set foot in his native Iraq for more than four years. Or maybe it is precisely because he hasn’t been home for so long that the country prevails in his art.

AlKarkhi was successful in his homeland until 2006, when along with other artists, writers and intellectuals who had become the target of militias, he was forced to flee sectarian violence. Many of his friends were killed.

“The chaos and lack of order in Iraq made it impossible to stay,” AlKarkhi recently said through a translator. He and his wife and children fled to Damascus, Syria, where he filed papers to earn refugee status with the United Nations.

There, his art was shown at several United Nations-sponsored exhibits and caught the eye of a sympathetic ex-diplomat. Last August, with the help of U.N., French and American officials, the United States granted the family asylum.

AlKarkhi’s “Baghdad Revisited” is on display with several works for sale now at the Foundry Gallery (1314 18th St. NW).

His paintings, in a sense a metaphor for the country itself, fall into two distinct camps: On the one hand, there are soft, idealized landscapes of tropical palms and canoes along the sparkling Euphrates, and on the other, raw abstract paintings of scenes such as a group of veiled women.

The former denotes AlKarkhi’s longing for his homeland. The beautifully vivid desert scenes capture charming, peaceful images of rural Iraq and also exude a certain dreamlike quality.

The abstracts, with more harsh colors and jutting brush strokes, hearken the very violence AlKarkhi was forced to flee or maybe the anger of having to do so.

AlKarkhi succeeds by achieving two very different effects with the same medium of acrylic and oil on canvas, revealing a window into the psyche of a refugee.

Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaida’ie attended the recent opening of the artist’s exhibit. He said AlKarkhi’s work is a good way to represent his country, which is commonly known for images of spilled blood and crumbled, bombed-out buildings.

“In a sense, he is helping me do my job by informing the American public that Iraq is not only about violence,” Sumaida’ie said. “Iraq has been creative for thousands of years, and we’re not going to stop just because of a few years of war.”

Still, he acknowledged the loss Iraq suffers in being a country untenable for artists.

“They leave Iraq, but Iraq does not leave them,” he said. “He has left, but he has not left. That art, that’s Iraq.”

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