"It's the first history of this life, everything started there, it’s Babylon, it’s the Sumerians. They started law, writing,” says painter Bassim Al Shaker. “You know one thing? When I first moved here I had a friend ask me, Bassim, do you have cars in Iraq? I just thought, what are these people being told about Iraq to think this way? We were the first to have wheels!” Since the artist was selected to participate in the Iraqi Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale he has carried the themes of his home region with him, and his new work continues to translate the creative energy that Al Shaker generates from his experiences. “I’m painting a bigger picture of what's happened to me and millions of people in Iraq,” he says.
“Four Minutes,” Al Shaker’s exhibition opening September 8 at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, is his inaugural solo show with the gallery and will include works all completed within the last year. Al Shaker says the paintings, a series of mesmerizing abstract oils, are inspired by the experiences that take place within the four minutes right after a bomb detonates.These are moments that Al Shaker describes as mute chaos, a breath held within the abyss of catastrophe, but also, and more significantly, the time it takes to reaffirm that you are alive.
“If you see the after, that means you are alive,” Al Shaker tells me as we sit in his studio at Mana Con-temporary, gazing at his new painting “Sky Revolution” (2023). “These paintings are not about death. They are not about the bomb. They are about the moment after. Each painting is a new beginning. There is death, but I have a new life. I am still alive.”
“Sky Revolution” is immense and deceptively intricate. “It’s going to be on the ceiling at the gallery,” Al Shaker says, “so I try to paint it as if I am looking at it from below.” Even with a vertical encounter, it towers above me, already evoking a monumental ceiling painting you would expect to find in a cathedral or a chapel. Fitting for an artist who is on record as responding to the question of his religious beliefs with “I am an artist.”
It evokes a stormy sky with smoky branchlike tendrils forming into dark borders around the edges of the painting like clouds on the horizon. The elusive forms transfix attention and suspend judgment. It’s unsettling in its demands of untethered emotion set adrift in the waves of color. A tender pink form near the center of the composition invites focus on the charming, light colors in the heart of the painting and for a moment the whole painting feels pink. “I don’t normally use pink, but this one demanded it,” Al Shaker says, sharing my feeling of the hue’s commanding presence. Pink is actually used sparingly, a few dense moments and then only splashes interrupting the galaxy blues and oasis turquoise, and punctuating the sandy oranges. The painting pulses with energy. The dark forms of the border reach inward, drawing you into the painting, but just as you move toward the center, it pushes back and the light colors come forward, like a beating heart.
Al Shaker embodies the vital energy of his paint-ings. He radiates a joyful energy, an achievement given his brushes with bombs, death and war. Originally from Baghdad, the thirty-six-year-old artist lived through the reign of Saddam Hussein as well as the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of his home country. For Al Shaker, the dangers of living through war and tumultuous periods were not only omnipresent, but personal and brought him close to death. In the incident that led to his immigration to the United States, Mahdi Army militiamen kidnapped him, publicly mocked him, and nearly killed him after they found a drawing he had done of a nude woman—in this case the Venus de Milo statue he was sketching for his college entrance exams during breaks at his barbershop, where he was making a living cutting hair.
His encounter with the militia and the subsequent network of artists that formed to help him escape the militia men’s fury was reported in a New York Times article about how he eventually found refuge in Phoenix, Arizona. Al Shaker also used the experience as inspiration for his short film “Barbershop” (2021), which he showed as a part of “Sada” [Regroup] at Documenta fifteen. The film has since been shown at Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival and e-flux Screening Room in New York City and he will be attending another screen-ing in Brazil this October.
Defending his choice to pursue an artistic path has been a core element of his life. After the first year of studying computer science in a technical high school, Al Shaker knew that was not the path for him. Behind his parents' back, but with the help of his musician uncles and grandfather, Al Shaker spent hours studying and preparing for the highly competitive entrance exams to the art high school. “When they told me that if I got in I would have to start from the beginning and go back one year, I told them, ‘I don’t care, I will go back ten years if I have to.’” Passing the exam meant that he would have to confess to his parents. “I told them, this is my life and my future and I want to be an artist.” Ultimately his parents agreed that he should go, with two stipulations. First, he would take full responsibility for his decision and two, rather than pursuing music, like his uncles had, he would pursue drawing and painting. Al Shaker accepted the responsibility wholeheartedly and has never forsaken his decision to be an artist.
The training that Al Shaker received in the art high school and subsequently at the University of Baghdad College of Fine Arts provided him with a high level of technical and academic skill that carries through all his works. But the choice of how to convey his subject mat-ter in his paintings has changed and expanded a lot recently. When he decided to pursue his MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he felt that he still needed to learn how to get what he was feeling and thinking inside onto the canvas. “I am translating memories to paintings,” he says.
Often these memories are not his alone. Regarding his series “Symphony of Death" for example, he says: “I painted this one after the 2019 October protests in Baghdad—so many people died and no one talked about it, no one talks about it.”
The protests he is referring to started with demands for expanded services and curbs on corruption on October 1 and, according to Human Rights Watch, by October 10 had already seen security forces use scalding hot water and live fire on crowds resulting in at least 105 deaths and over 4,000 people injured, numbers which only continued to rise as the protests continued.
For Al Shaker, talking about the protests translated into a dark and surreal set of three paintings for the unfinished series “Symphony of Death.” Among other themes, the three completed paintings reflect processes of slow and almost inevitable loss of self determination which relate not only to the protestors' issues with corruption and desires for better lives in their home country, but also corruption of the mind more broadly, through ideologies and corrosive group-think. In “Symphony of Death (3)” (2019) we see only the backs of a group as they face a mysteriously shrouded and tightly bound gray figure rising out of a sandy barren landscape in the distance. In “Symphony of Death (1)” (2019) a conductor stands in front of an orchestra which sits on absent chairs, a line of red paint strings them all together as the conductor's papers fly above, slowly turning into dollar bills. It evokes a obligatory and incessant concert entirely devoid of autonomous mobility.
These works incorporate religious symbols and layered narratives. “Halal” (2019), which works with similar themes, brings together “an unnamed American, an unnamed Shia person, an unnamed Sunni person and an Iranian soldier” around a table formed from the flag of Iraq. Smoke wisps out from the body on the table in front of them and from a pair of legs protruding from the bottom, and a green bra flung over an empty chair in the foreground suggests the absent presence of so many people, as does the look on the politicians’ faces, so vacant you feel they are looking out past the viewer.
Al Shaker’s current explorations continue to draw on on his harrowing experiences in Iraq using more abstraction than his earlier work. This change originated with his 2021 series “Human Crumbs.” The paintings in this series are tied together in their use of turquoise, deep blues and pastel yellows. The form of the balloon, which has become very symbolic and significant in the recent works, makes its first appearance alongside subtle yet disconcertedly incomplete human forms. In “Alone After” (2021), legs dangle out from beyond a darker green background—they seem to hover over what we might think of as the edge of a bathtub, but it's not quite right, the skewed perspective won’t allow us to fully trust the comfort we might find in this narrative. In another painting, almost fading into the background, a figure lays prone in the corner, while another seems to fall from the sky. There is a sleepy quality here among the pastels, but it is not a restful one.
While “Human Crumbs” and “Moment of Silence,” his 2022 series, incorporate bodies and body parts, this new series, “Four Minutes,” is devoid of the human form. “I want to open doors,” he says. “With ‘Human Crumbs’ I wanted to give a taste of what I was saying. I wanted the viewer to have hints.”
Especially from the perspective of where the new series has gone, these paintings seem to be laying a narrative groundwork. If “Four Minutes" are the immediate after, the previous series might be the moment of the explosion. They might also represent a new perspective of the artist on the question of his responsibility to viewers. “I don’t want them to see what I saw,” he tells me.
As we return to viewing “Sky Revolution,” I ask Al Shaker about the absence of figures. “Balloons are a lot like figures though,” he says. “They both have form, they both have shape and soul. Popped, they will behave the same.” It occurs to me then that there was yet another form of dichotomous movement within the painting, it is generously giving even as it withholds. “These,” he says pointing to the pink, “are parts of balloons.”
“Bassim Al Shaker: Four Minutes” at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 1711 West Chicago, on view September 8 through October 21.