Traditional Scenes, Fresh Eyes

What could happen when an artist is given a commission to complete a piece or a series that is so far removed from a context, aesthetic or culture that he/she is accustomed to? It really depends on so many factors that there is no way of telling what the end result of such a task could be. But that’s what makes it so exciting!


Close up of traditional Iraqi painting. Source: Getty Images Credit: Chris Hondros

A few months ago, I had visited my aunt’s place and had come across a series of paintings that hung in her entrance hall that I hadn’t noticed before. They were paintings of traditional scenes of the Iraq that once was. Paintings of scenes that practically every Iraqi household has hanging on one wall or another scattered around the house. Paintings I had grown up with despite never having set foot in my homeland. Depictions of markets, alleyways, street vendors and those oh so unique balconies called “shanasheel”. Pictures that never failed to set the adults in the room on a reminiscent path, taking them back in time, recalling all sorts of fond happy memories. I’m quite sure that many adults easily forgot that I was even in the room while they went on their emotional rollercoaster of memories, unknowingly creating a very special place in my heart for their stories. For it is their stories that have helped create a picture of what Iraq was in my own mind and in turn, has helped me fill a void and at least try to understand snippets of my own identity.

In any case, at my aunt’s, we said our hellos, sat down for dinner and had a great time catching up over tea and dessert. The night was coming to an end and we found ourselves back in the entrance hall where those same paintings seemed to grab my attention yet again. They captivated me to the point that I could hardly keep my eyes off of them. The scenes portrayed were so familiar and yet so different. I had to ask what was the story behind them.

Sure enough, there was a story to be told about the series and here is how it goes: On a trip to the US, my aunt and uncle were introduced to the work of American artist: Jim Jeffrey. They found themselves to be quite fond of his work that they asked if he would take a commission to paint a series of specific pictures. They then chose a few snapshots to be transformed into paintings, passed them over to Jeffrey and left it at that. Absolutely no context was given. He then took the pictures and began to create using an open mind, an unbiased eye and a great attention to detail. It was only after the paintings were complete that a context and history of the images were given creating some really great conversation.

Traditionally, such artworks are executed using thick layers of paint and applied primarily using palette knives. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case or how this particular technique came to be so popular. To me, I feel as though the layering of the paint reflects the many layers within the society portrayed; the thick textures and softly blended colours come off of the stretched canvas creating a unique palpable richness to the scenes giving them a dreamlike existence. But that’s just my opinion. (Side note: These are not to be mistaken to represent all Iraqi art as both the traditional and contemporary art are extremely varied and diverse)

Here’s a slideshow of what I saw in comparison to what I’m used to seeing:

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As you look at this particular series, you can tell at a glance that none of the aforementioned techniques was applied; which is exactly what makes these paintings so intriguing. The same traditional scenes that have been depicted for years have been given a very new coat of paint, so to speak, and the results are beautiful! The use of very fine brush strokes, the precisions of colour, tone and shade have given the paintings a new form of life. To contrast tradition, here, every blade of grass and brick are painted with such detail that the subject matter comes off the canvas in a way that is ultra-realistic as opposed to the dreamlike haze described earlier. Just gorgeous.
So, to answer the questions I had posed earlier: The end result of giving an artist a task with no context can be mesmerising.

There is much more to this than just a beautiful painting though. Yes, art can be beautiful and uplifting but it is through art that we can learn to see things differently; to apply our own gaze onto the world with less judgment and more humanity. What if more people around the globe approached others’ differences in the same way as this artist approached photographs of a different culture? With no biases, no judgments and no preconceptions but most of all no fear of the unknown. Of all the plagues in this world, I think fear is the most relentless of all, as everything else stems from fear itself. If the majority of us saw the beauty in others across the globe by approaching their differences with the intent of understanding and celebrating them, we’d live in a far more beautiful world.

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