One of the youngest artists in the Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th Venice Biennale, Bassim Al-Shaker (b. 1986, Baghdad, Iraq) is stylistically one of its most traditional, making oil paintings that would very much impress his teachers at the local academy. Eschewing any sign of avant-gardism he paints scenes of the southern marshlands, suggesting a lifestyle there of unbroken tradition. The recent reality is very different, of course, this being a place that suffered terribly during Saddam’s dictatorship. While perhaps not straightforwardly documentary, Al-Shaker’s series reveals a side of Iraq’s landscape that even many Iraqis have never seen first-hand.
You are from the city, why do you portray rural life? Daily life in the South, and the daily life of Iraqis is very rural. People have always worked the land. But the marshlands are marvelous. There is water everywhere, slipping between the houses. Sometimes we call it the Venice of Iraq, which is why I chose these paintings for the Pavilion.
What Iraqi artists inspired your work? There are so many Iraqi and foreign artists that inspired me. Faiq Hassan, Jawad Salim, Shaker Hassan Al Saeed are seminal figures from the Iraqi art scene. They introduced modern art to Iraq. We’ve always had a cultural heritage, Sumerian, Akkadian and Islamic, but these artists created something new. In the days of Faiq Hassan and Jawad Salim, the mood changed for art in Baghdad. To this day, Iraqi artists in Baghdad are following their footsteps.
Why is Ruya an important foundation for Iraq? Ruya took artists from within Iraq to the Biennale. I don’t think many people outside Iraq knew about our artists. It’s been over 30 years since artists living in Iraq last exhibited at the Biennale. Without Ruya, maybe people wouldn’t know about life in Iraq and Iraqi artists. Their image of the country would be one of war and killing – but art in Iraq reflects a different reality.
How have your ideas about art changed since the Biennale? In the same way that Faiq Hassan and Jawad Salim made radical innovations in their time, I think that the group of artists who came to the Biennale will change art in Baghdad, thanks to what we have seen and learnt this week. The art you get in Iraq is wonderful, and we have so many artists – but it is very traditional, it’s rarely conceptual, and isolated from global contemporary art trends– this is the problem. Iraqi art needs to change, I hope that the artists who went to the Biennale will initiate this.
What are your upcoming projects? I am going to America, to Arizona State University this month where I’ve been awarded a residency. There I’ll have the time to focus on my work and develop new ideas –in Baghdad I could only paint between part time jobs.