Ali Al Tajer is an Iraqi painter and art historian. Trained as a draughtsman at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad, Al Tajer worked as an illustrator for magazines and newspapers in Iraq. Al Tajer’s academic research was focused on the portrayal of ancients myths, human and animal motifs in the vernacular art and architecture of Iraq. Elements of these continue to pervade today in his painting. His recent series, ‘Babylon’ (2015), fuses scenes from daily urban life in Iraq with symbolic characters and objects. Among his influences, Al Tajer cites the expressionist city scenes of the Belgian painter James Ensor, the elliptical Fayum portraits of Egyptian Rome, and the musical qualities of Marc Chagall’s works. He speaks to Ruya about his recent series, Babylon, as well as the impact of myth, history and memory on his work.
What is the world that you are creating in the paintings from your Babylon collection (2015)? What has happened to it?
The paintings are a collection of myths, folk tales, historical events, scenes from novels and other art works. I want to conjure up colours, tastes and smells of Babylon. It is a name that was used throughout history to allude to our culture and represent the identity of Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers. It is the first series of paintings to document my perspective on what is happening in my country. In my painting The Violinist (2015) I have placed three public figures in a well-known public square in Baghdad. A sculpture of the Iraqi violinist Falih Hassan stands in the middle, mediating between two opponents. To his right is Abdul Karim Qassim, the Iraqi army general and nationalist who served as president of Iraq after the revolution of 1958, a coup d’état which overthrew and killed the monarchy. To his left is Abdul Wahab Al Ghirairi, a poet and member of the Ba’ath party who was killed in a failed assassination attempt on Qassim by Ba’athists in 1959. Their union represents a call for peace, for Iraqis to find different approaches that will lead to tolerance and acceptance. In my redesign of the square, I have combined these familiar images of people and historical events in an attempt to find unity and harmony among them.
As an artist, what inspires you about the past?
I used to perceive the past as an armory, an enclosed space in which the tools of violence have been boxed away. I have since turned it into a garden of pleasure, where everything I love is to be found. We are a product of the past, for good or ill. We still spend a large part of our lives in the past. It governs our present in all kinds of ways, major and minor, it can both help and hinder us. I attach great importance to the documentation of my country and its heritage, something that has not been taken seriously yet, perhaps because we are stronger at oral traditions, and have a weak sense of national identity. It has made me keen to include a documentary aspect in my works. It comes, perhaps, from a sense of obligation towards our heritage.
What can Iraq’s mythologies tell us about the present day and what have they predicted?
Myths do not predict the future. Yet in the current state of affairs, we can discern elements foretold by prophecy. What was a sacred truth 5,000 years ago is a myth to us now, an entertaining story about heroism and wisdom. But for thousands of years, these stories were an umbrella that gathered the worshippers of that ancient religion. In my painting The Substitute King (2015) the setting is modern and urban but I recall two rituals associated with ancient Mesopotamian customs. In the Babylonian New Years celebrations known as Akitu, the King is stripped of his powers and jewels by priests in the Esagila, or the God Marduk’s temple. He remains powerless and is slapped by the high priest until he sheds royal tears, after which order is restored. This ritual serves to remind the people of the legitimacy of the King’s rule, and the importance of maintaining his regime’s power, authority and stability. It also reminds them of the human nature of the King, to keep them on the right path. Another similar ritual is that of the Substitute King. The King steps down temporarily, in order to protect himself from dangers that were not foreseen by the fortune tellers. A governor takes his seat as the Substitute King until the threat subsides. However, on a few occasions the Substitute King plans a coup, and takes control of the throne. The King’s power is usurped by a mobster and his aides, who lead the country into an uncertain future.
You left Iraq in the 2000s. If you could go back in time to Iraq, which period would you chose to live in, and why?
I would prefer to live in the 1930s and ’40s during the monarchical period. In my opinion, it was the peak period of the nascent Iraqi state. We had a constitution, a parliament and a senate mostly made up of specialists who had expertise and integrity. They embodied the best hopes for the future, enjoying good diplomatic relations with Iraq’s neighbours and beyond. Iraq then, was viewed with respect and had regional and international significance.
Can you recall a recent a dream? Why was it memorable?
The last dream that I can remember well was in the early eighties. I saw a man bathed in light inside my house. “Who are you?” I asked, but he turned his back on me and left. Analysts would say that he was one of our protecting saints to whom you have to say: “Welcome, please come in”. Despite all this destruction, we are still slaves to these apparitions, even in our dreams.