The Iraqi Colors of Selma al-Allaq in Washington
For her seventh solo show opening — this one at the Iraqi Cultural Center (ICC) in Washington — Iraqi-born painter Selma al-Allaq wore an ensemble that seemed to spontaneously emerge from the vibrant palette of her paintings. The exhibition Iraqi Colors showcases al-Allaq’s figurative and abstract compositions of architecture, landscape and textile elements as well as portraits of children and horses.
Al-Allaq’s preferred colours are shades of blue, from turquoise to darker hues, complemented by oranges and reds, often with white doves, an occasional rooster or a crescent moon.
The Iraqi Colors collection’s spectrum of cool and hot began with the blue-infused d’après Mark Chagall contemplation of doves in windows and the sketches of white horses galloping on a blue ground. With flourishes of her brush, al-Allaq deftly captures the equine musculature and powerful momentum. In warming shades, she paints bright orange and red woven rugs with fringes. Geometric, realistic and more mystical elements are present. Besides its cultural relevance and nostalgic patriotic romance, her work could delightfully illustrate folk tales.
Rendered in pastels, a triptych of quietly curious children — one carrying a dove — was praised by a former US diplomat as “timeless… [The figures] could be from any era”.
Al-Allaq has a welcoming presence, yet her smile seems a bit reserved, perhaps wistful. Her paintings are her triumph over tragedy, a celebration of her Iraqi heritage. She lives in California and divides her time between the United States and Prague where her husband, Moyad Al-Haidari, also a painter, is a broadcaster with the Iraq Service of Radio Free Europe. They will both exhibit this fall at a show about art from the Islamic world, sponsored by the Czech Foreign Ministry.
When asked about her early days as an immigrant in the United States, she said: “[We} started with a very hard feeling, but life must go on. It’s enough to live in very dark circumstances… I don’t need my paintings to be so dark.”
Asked about her inspiration, she said: “I do my painting as I wish for my country, a kind of hope. I can’t live without painting.”
Al-Allaq restrains her typically flamboyant colour palette in only a few of her paintings, such as a pair — in browns and beiges on a white ground — depicting Antoni Gaudi-style architectural compositions of leaning archways, windows and balconies as may be found in older tightly clustered village buildings.
Unfortunately, the installation itself offered neither titles nor background. Signage and interpretive remarks would have been helpful to illuminate al-Allaq’s significance as a contemporary Iraqi artist.
Attendees at the May 30th opening were almost exclusively Iraqi and the atmosphere was more hafli than art appreciation. Given the ICC’s intent to “make this centre a cultural touch point between Iraq and the US [and to] encourage as much participation as possible from Americans and Iraqis residing in the US”, to discourse on science, arts and culture, it is baffling they did not promote the event.
Certainly, the gathering offered Iraqis a pleasant cultural communing but given the free entry, beautiful exhibit and generous Arabic food, the show’s invisibility sacrificed what could have been an ideal public diplomacy opportunity.
Nevertheless, ICC Director Mohammed al-Tourahi, was delighted with the happy buzz and turnout of about 75 guests, including Iraqi Ambassador to Washington Lukman Faily and his wife, Lameis.
Tourahi recited a poem about Baghdad with an emotional earnestness, yet his words didn’t always carry since many guests did not suspend their conversations to listen — surprisingly, not even to remarks by the artist herself.
The most remarkable visitor was a young Iraqi who said he drove 7 hours from upstate New York to attend.
Ahmed al-Swiedi walked around quietly with his camera. A bit shy, he was impressed with the “high-level people” in the crowd. Swiedi graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Basra University and emigrated to the United States with his brother in 2012, leaving their parents, who are educators in Basra. He expressed his new American patriotism saying, “Hey, America deserves respect, too,” and photographed the event for his Facebook page.
Al-Allaq has always been a painter and was a well-established artist for decades in Iraq. A graduate of the Fine Arts Academy of Baghdad, she also studied in Germany and, since 1975, has participated in international exhibitions in the Middle East, the Czech Republic, United Kingdom and France.
Her show at the ICC ran from May 30th through June 8th.
The ICC is a non-profit cultural institution affiliated with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.
It features a variety of cultural events throughout the year and also posts the Iraqi Cultural Red List of Stolen Arts.