Artist Modhir Ahmed left Iraq in 1980. A few months later it invaded Iran. Prior to his exhibition at the Albareh Gallery in Bahrain, Murray Garrard caught up with one of the Middle East’s most inspiring exiles at his home in Stockholm
Time Out Bahrain staff
When did you leave Iraq? I left in 1980 to study in Warsaw. When I was studying at the Academy of Fine Art in Baghdad, we were taught by the founder of modern lithography who was Polish. We had a lot of exhibitions from Poland and the professor was very keen to show us art from his country. I asked him in 1975 if it was possible to study in Poland. And he told me, ‘Yes of course you can study in Poland. We have good lithography because the country is close to Germany, which is where lithography started.’ So the idea was to go to Poland and then go home to Iraq to use this kind of technique.
But you never went back to Iraq? I went to Poland in August in 1980 and a few weeks later the war between Iraq and Iran started. We were waiting to go back for one week, one month, one year, and the waiting never ended. And then began the uprising in Poland [the authoritarian clamp down owing to the emergence of the anti-communist ‘Solidarity’ movement], and we were thinking about our country and how to support our lives and yet there was war here too.
So where did you go then? There wasn’t a future in Poland then. People lived in Poland like people live in Iraq today. It was war. So I went to Sweden.
Tell me about your creative process. I have to experiment a lot and fight with the paper. Sometimes I look at paper but never touch it. But sometimes when I am working and my head is empty then the paper cries ‘Take me now!’ This is my way to create art.
How long does it take to create a work of art? Some not more than one minute. For some it takes ten years.
Where did you have an exhibition where you were most surprised by the reception? Poland. Poland has a very strong education system, and they have over 1,000 students in seven academies of fine arts. The competition is very hard, and they know what good quality is. The artists in Poland were always working but none of them were thinking of selling. The competition was everything for them. This atmosphere was very good, it was freedom.
Have you been back to Iraq? No, I have never been back. I went to see my mother in Amman, Jordan shortly before she died. In Saddam’s time I had no problem with the politics. But we were never sure that if we went back we wouldn’t be caught and sent to fight in the war for five years or ten years. After that [my family] told me, ‘Don’t come back, this is not life here, you have to stay there.’ I wanted to go to Iraq when it was made free about five or so years ago, but they said, ‘Never, don’t come, you have to wait.’ I have been waiting for 30 years.
Do you want to go back? I have had a lot of invitations from my friends, especially in Kurdistan. I have helped them to create a print workshop there. But because I have family in Baghdad, it will be very difficult to be there and not go to Baghdad. I hope to go, because the situation must get better.
Do you think the country has a good future ahead of it? It must do. I feel really good about the future of Iraq. Something happened to us, but we can’t think about it or why it happened, we have to think about now and the future. People create their own lives, this is for sure. Look at Poland. When I was there in the 1980s it was chaos, and I am going there next week as a tourist.
Is there a big artistic community in Iraq? I have some friends and I talk to them if they have electricity. I am helping them with their artistic process. Still, they have big problems. Iraqi modern art needs good teachers. The most important thing is that they need to understand why they are making art, not just doing it. But there are two types of people that never stop working: artists and writers. They don’t stop for war or wait for peace.
Modhir Ahmed will hold a joint exhibition with prominent London-based Iraqi artist Faisel Laibi Sahi at Albareh Gallery from January 5 until February 5. For more information, contact the gallery on 17 717 707 or visit www.albareh.com.