Afifa Aleiby (born 1952, Basra) grew up in a family devoted to culture and the arts where she painted from an early age. She studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad and worked as an illustrator for the Iraqi press. In 1974, she left Iraq for the Soviet Union to study at the Surikov Institute in Moscow. In 1981, unable to return to Iraq due to the political situation, she moved to Italy and later to Yemen, where she taught at the Institute of Fine Arts in Aden. Aleiby has contributed to cultural activities in support of the Iraqi and international democratic movements, and in the struggle against terrorism, racism, war and dictatorship. She has participated in numerous art exhibitions, from Baghdad and Moscow to Yemen, Italy, Syria, Lebanon, England and the United States. Aleiby has been living and working in the Netherlands since the mid 1990s. The Museum Catharinagasthuis in Gouda presented a retrospective of her work in 1999, and she exhibits periodically with the De Twee Pauwen gallery in The Hague.
You have travelled extensively, and your work brings together different influences: from Renaissance painting to religious icons and social realism. Yet amid these references, women and the female figure are a recurring motif in your work. What role do women play in your paintings?
I am often asked this question and I have written about it in the past for art journals. My priority in painting is to present an idea or fixed message. This can be a reflection on beauty, on taste, on politics or on society. I use the female figure as a medium to help communicate this idea. Women as human figures have something special that you cannot find in men: the way they move and their beauty. My work may at times be related to women’s issues, but I don’t intend it to be a feminist statement.
You grew up in a family of artists, how did this influence your own path?
I’ve been surrounded by art since childhood. I grew up in an open-minded household that embraced European artistic traditions and I had access to books about art from Europe and Russia. I come from a family of artists and musicians, and I was the youngest. All children love drawing, but when a child grows up in an artistic household they know from an early age which path to follow. My brother, the artist Faisal Aleiby helped me apply to the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad after high school, and he remains the biggest influence on my work to this day.
What was the art scene like in Baghdad when you were a student there?
The Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad attracted students with a serious interest in the arts. Our professors had all studied abroad in France, Italy, the Soviet Union and the UK. They were highly experienced and cultured. I used to read a lot because we didn’t have many museums. Few public institutions existed in the city. At the time, the Gulbenkian Building exhibited Iraqi artists from the 1950s onwards. There was nonetheless a genuine artistic activity in the city, and this was a huge influence on students who were ambitious, passionate and driven to succeed. I learnt from Iraqi masters such as the sculptor Miran Al Saadi, and the graphic artist Rafa’ Al Nasiri. The painter Rasul ‘Alwan was wonderful and generous with his knowledge. There was a good relationship between the teachers and their students. I was a good student, particularly for my age, and I had great desire to learn and improve.
Did you stay on in Baghdad to practice as an artist?
While I was studying, I worked as an illustrator for the children’s magazines Sahafat Al-atfal and Al-Mizmar Lil-atfal. I also contributed to cultural magazines for young people and to and women’s magazines. The newspaper Tariq Alshaab hired me as their first illustrator. I illustrated poetry, romances and serialised stories about work, social issues and general culture.
Why did you then move to Russia?
I used to love Russian icons and I had always dreamed of studying in Russia. My youngest brother Abdulilah had gone to Rome and Faisal to Paris. So my ambition was to go to Moscow. I applied for a scholarship at the Surikov Institute in Moscow, which was the best art school in the Soviet Union at the time. I spent a year in Moscow learning Russian, and then began my six years of study. Though I was already an experienced artist, it was like starting again from scratch at the Surikov Institute: they taught us to develop our ideas rigorously before we applied paint to the canvas.
Many people who had been exiled by the Iraqi regime were living in Moscow […] I have good memories of our time there
The 1970s and 80s saw many Iraqi communists settle in Russia and the Soviet Union, creating an intellectual community among the diaspora. Where you involved in these circles at all?
Many people who had been exiled by the Iraqi regime were living in Moscow and other socialist countries such as the writers Ghaib Tu’ma Farman and Faiz Al-Zubaidi and the journalist Jalal Al Mashta. Some came to study on government scholarships, others used their studies as an opportunity to go into exile. This community was gradually separated and disseminated all over the world. I was acquainted with the intellectuals and writers in Moscow. I have good memories of our time there. It was an important stage in my life.
In Moscow, you specialised in murals and monumental art, what drew you to this form of art?
For me, murals and other forms of public art such as vitrines, mosaics and frescoes, are the art of the people. These are art forms that the masses can admire and feel a connection towards. They appear on public buildings, on the street, in churches and in mosques. These works are present in people’s lives. In the fine arts you can paint a canvas, but it will stay within the borders of the artist’s studio, a collector’s home or a museum. I had always loved Russian icons and mosaics, but part of my ambition was to draw and work on a large scale, and to create art for the public realm. Murals and monumental art aren’t the work of a single artist. There will be one artist, the usta (expert craftsman) as they say in Iraqi, who directs a team. When Jewad Selim built the Monument to Freedom, he worked with a team of people to execute his vision.
Were you making any public artworks in Moscow at the time?
There were no professional opportunities for me in Moscow. As soon as I finished my studies, I had to leave, as I had no job and no salary. It was a tough time for us Iraqi artists in the Soviet Union. Due to the political situation back home, we didn’t have a homeland, and we didn’t know where to go. I was married at the time for almost a year to an Iraqi artist living in Italy, and I moved to live with him. There, I took a short break from making art, and spent my days discovering the country’s rich artistic heritage. The streets of Rome were like a museum.
You reference religious art such as Russian icons and Renaissance painting, but at the time that you were painting in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Baghdad and in Moscow, art was seen as tool for political progress. What is the role of an artist in your opinion?
As we often say, the artist’s role is to reconstruct the things that we see around us. The artist recreates things and presents them to the public in a new way. He or she takes into account political situations and can play an important role in the public and political sphere. The artist was once a painter of icons and churches. His subjects were related to the church and to religion. Yet, as the history of art shows, he also presented works relating to beauty, wonder and taste. The concept of religion was rich in other ideas and references. In our recent history, Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo delivered political works related to the daily life of labourers and normal people. The main topics of these works were political, but they were also rich in other ideas such as beauty. Such artists help widen people’s perceptions, by bringing forth new ideas, or a new image of the things that surround us.
When did you go back to Iraq? How did you find it?
I left Iraq in 1974, and returned in 2004, after the fall of the regime. I found it destroyed and in a state of extreme gloom. When I left Iraq, it was a clean and tidy country.There was culture, there was art, there was music, a good social life and an open minded society. When I went back to Iraq in 2004, all the things that I grown up with had gone: they were extinguished, or had no presence in public life. The destruction was everywhere: we’d had the Iran-Iraq war for eight years, followed by the first Gulf war and so on. The Iraq that I found, which is the Iraq of the present day, was broken and devastated. I was not comforted by my visit.
Would you consider continuing your work as artist in Basra or Iraq today?
I have no reason to go back to Iraq. I used to go to visit my sister, but she passed away last year. In Basra I cannot walk freely on the street because there is no security. The government is corrupt and cannot protect us. As for other artists that I have met in Basra, I cannot relate to them. Some of them are too religious in their outlook. There is no space for freedom. If you put forward your ideas and opinions, they do not listen. They will not accept you because you are different to them. The Basra that I grew up in was open-minded and diverse. As a teenager, I read European literature in translation and I watched European films. We were familiar with other cultures. I did not feel any obstacles or barriers when I arrived in Europe. But Iraqis who come to Europe today can feel that gap, they struggle to relate to this new world, as they have been living for years in isolation.
I believe that art unites, and therefore I do not call myself an Iraqi artist.
How has the Iraqi diaspora helped shape Iraqi art to this day?
When I first arrived to Italy, we were a big group of Iraqi artists in Rome, Florence and Milan. We were educated to a high level and had real ambitions for Iraqi art. I was part of the group and wanted to contribute, to help Iraqi art and Iraqis. All this good will faded with time due to the evolving political situation. Even Iraqis living abroad were affected by the climate in Iraq. There are divisions among us now which didn’t exist before. During the Iran-Iraq war we were all Iraqis who opposed the war and wanted it to end. After the Gulf War, a wave of refugees from Iraq came to Europe. Their education and experience was different to ours. Things changed. We were no longer Iraqis, but Shi’as, Sunnis, Turcomen, Turks, Christians, Catholics and so on… I find this atmosphere difficult to cope with, and I am less involved with the diaspora today.
What makes you paint today? Are you still trying to develop an Iraqi art?
I paint to enrich my life day to day. It helps me, and I draw what I want to draw. The most important thing for me is to keep working and follow my vision. My work is not inspired by my Iraqi heritage. I believe that art unites, and therefore I do not call myself an Iraqi artist. I am a woman that draws and makes art for everyone.