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Bassim Al-Shaker

Awash in swirling hues of green, blue, and orange that evoke the cosmos, the towering canvases showcased in a new exhibition at Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery are inspired by the tense and disorienting moments after a bomb detonates.

Bassim Al-Shaker, the Iraqi-born and now Chicago-based artist behind “Four Minutes,” says that if you look closely at the abstract canvases in the show, you’ll notice tiny balloons floating through the colorful void or bursting into pieces. Al-Shaker describes these drifting orbs as representative of the souls of those who are caught up in the blast.

“When you have a bomb [go off] next to you, nothing is real at that moment. Everything is new for you — it’s not realistic or a known moment,” said Al-Shaker, 37, whose recollections of his former life in Baghdad often feel as vivid as his imagery. “When I create these paintings, I’m also not familiar with these moments. It has the same poetic feeling.”

One of the most compelling immigrant artists in a city that’s long welcomed creatives from across the globe, Al-Shaker makes art inspired by his tumultuous past in the Middle East that often confronts difficult memories, such as witnessing bombs exploding in Baghdad. While his work is rooted in personal history, coming to Chicago has helped Al-Shaker find new creative avenues.

Just a few years ago, Al-Shaker was painting surreal, politically charged images, such as one of Middle Eastern men dining on a bloodied human body at a table draped in an Iraqi flag. When Al-Shaker moved to Chicago in 2019 to enroll in the fine arts masters program at the School of the Art Institute, the imagery streaming out of his brush underwent a dramatic change.

“When [SAIC] interviewed me, they asked me, ‘Why are you here? You don’t need the school,’ ” Al-Shaker said. “I told them, ‘I need to find my style. I need to talk about what’s happened to me and I can’t [accomplish that] through the Academic or Classical styles.’ ”

While the artist’s creative output has taken a turn for the abstract, such foundational styles are still evident in his work. “The way he paints, it’s very old and beautiful — it’s not realism, but just exquisite in the way you look at old master paintings,” said Chicago gallerist Rhona Hoffman, who is hosting his show through Oct. 21.

“Four Minutes” is Al-Shaker’s first exhibition at Hoffman’s gallery. When I spoke to the artist, he told me he was drawn to Chicago by a river that reminded him of the Tigris in Iraq and the diversity of the people who live in the city.

Growing up in Baghdad, Al-Shaker followed in the footsteps of his family of musicians and artists by expressing himself through drumming and painting. When his parents decided to send him to high school where he was expected to study computers, Al-Shaker had no choice but to rebel.

Al-Shaker turned to his uncles and grandfather, secretly learning notes and scales so that he could pass an admissions test and study music at an arts high school in Baghdad. After Al-Shaker nailed the audition, he had to break the news to his unsuspecting parents.

“I told them, ‘If you will not let me go to this school, I’m not going to any school,’ ” Al-Shaker recalled. “My dad said, ‘Okay, we will say yes, but you are going to study painting because I don’t want you to be a musician.’ ”

By 15, Al-Shaker was working as a barber and studying for another entry exam — this time to attend Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts. Late one night, a customer at the barber shop noticed Al-Shaker’s sketch of the “Venus de Milo.” The customer began to curse and shout at the budding artist, claiming that drawing the nude torso of a woman was “not allowed,” leading to a physical brawl.

When Al-Shaker showed up to work the next afternoon, a group of men associated with Iraq’s Mahdi Army militia were waiting to blindfold him and throw him in the trunk of a car. Al-Shaker was taken to a building where the men cut off his long, curly hair and beat him until he lost consciousness.

After the young artist woke up in a hospital, he learned that his attackers had left him for dead before they were captured by the American Army and thrown in jail.

“I thought, ‘How I am alive?’ Because when these people [associated with the Mahdi Army] take someone inside their place, they will die — everybody knows that,” Al-Shaker said.

Six years later, Al-Shaker was preparing to present his paintings at the prestigious Venice Biennale when he was told that his attackers had been released from prison and were furiously searching for him. Al-Shaker spent the month before his flight to Italy in hiding in Baghdad, with friends bringing him food and water while using “different entries” to conceal his location.

Al-Shaker was able to travel to the United States in 2013 thanks to the speedy assistance of Iraqi expatriate and arts organizer Rijin Sahakian, who helped arrange a residency at the Arizona State University Museum of Art for the artist. In Arizona, Al-Shaker began learning English and eventually was able to work as a drawing and painting instructor at local universities.

While Al-Shaker can’t safely return to Iraq, some of the people who are most important to him have joined him in America. After reading a story about him in The New York Times, the same lawyers who set Al-Shaker on the path to U.S. citizenship were also able to bring his parents to Arizona in 2016 — a feat that he remains ecstatic about.

“People have helped me a lot,” Al-Shaker said. “They stand up for me, it’s very amazing.”

When he speaks about Iraq, Al-Shaker is adamant about his deep connection to the country, insisting that he “cannot replace it.” Much of the work he’s developed since arriving in the United States, including the abstract paintings in “Four Minutes,” provides an emotional link to his past — a window into memories of a place where he can no longer set foot.

Zach Long is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He writes about local music and pop culture in his Attenuator newsletter.

If you goBassim Al-Shaker: “Four minutes” opens Friday at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 1711 W. Chicago Ave. The exhibition runs through Oct. 21, 2023.

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