Cheeman Ismaeel (b. 1966, Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan) is a painter who applies her decorative style not only to canvases but also to household objects, such as a television, a clock, an oil heater and a lunchbox. The proposition is refreshingly personal and unpretentious, blurring the line conventionally drawn between fine and decorative art. Her attempt to beautify even the most mundane and ubiquitous objects is touching as it draws our attention away from larger socio-political forces and back to the quotidian. Her work appeared in the Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th Venice Biennale.

Cheeman Ismaeel. Photo: Enrique Bottoni.

Cheeman Ismaeel. Photo: Enrique Bottoni.

What does your work tell us about daily life in Sulaymaniya, where you live? My work does not reflect life in Sulaimaniya but in Iraq as a whole, before the liberation. During the embargo, life was difficult and everything was uncertain: what you think you know, how you will get food and your basic daily needs. The latter were overpriced and not always available. You had to constantly plan how to source electricity and heating. This meant anxiety and sadness, but happiness when you got hold of it – and time spent together in love and warmth.

You paint on old, used objects such as televisions and steel plates. What themes do these evoke for you? Adding touches of paint to old objects is a way for me to embrace the past, and start looking towards the future. They are autobiographical, and they keep me connected to my past and my late husband. For example in Memories of Prison (2010), on display at the pavilion, I used a safr tasi, a tiffin lunch box that’s also used for storing prisoners’ food. It symbolises my husband’s childhood in the 70s, when he would see his mother carry the box to a large detention centre in the city of Kirkuk, to visit his father, a political prisoner. At age 9, these trips stopped abruptly: his father had been executed.


Cheeman Ismaeel, various works. Courtesy of the artist and Ruya Foundation.

Who has influenced your work? My husband, Hussein Al Masri. He was a playwright and actor, and wrote television dramas. He was important in Kurdistan and Iraq as a whole. He left an artistic imprint on my personal life and work.

What should the role of a painter be? In some instances, the painter is like an angel who saves sad spirits. In others, a truant or a maverick against everything that is familiar, or someone who persecutes mankind, such as the authority or social norms. The painter expresses feelings in a special language.

You have exhibited all over the world, from Tokyo to Berlin. How has the support been for Kurdish artists? We’ve done a lot to convey the culture, art and the Kurdish cause to the world. We’ve had support from the government, political parties and individuals, which Kurdish and Iraqi artists still need. A month ago, together with three other artists, we presented our work in a big exhibition about the Anfal, Saddam’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds.