Three Iraqi artists’ mural projects created within the ideological concept of socialist realism

By Olga Nefedova

My research work in various archives in Moscow led to the discovery of three important artworks, previously unknown to the general public, produced by the first Iraqi undergraduate and postgraduate students who came to study monumental art in the USSR in the early 1960s. The first discovery happened when I was working in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts (RGALI) with the documents of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. In the correspondence between the ministries and an art institute, a monumental work by Mahmoud Sabri (1927-2012), a Vasily Surikov Moscow State Academic Art Institute postgraduate student, was mentioned. Two other artworks I discovered when studying the archives of the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts: the graduation mural projects of monumentalist artists Shams al-Din Faris (1937-1983) and Ahmed al Numan (1939-2013). Currently I am working on indepth research dedicated to these three Iraqi artists’ mural projects created within the ideological concept of socialist realism in art, their historical appearance and their political environments: Mahmoud Sabri’s Watani, 1962-1963 (intended for Tahrir Square in Baghdad); Shams al-Din Faris’s People’s Wedding, 1967 (intended for a foyer of a Palace of Weddings in Baghdad) and Ahmed al Numan’s Celebrations of the Battle of Ashura, 1967 (intended for a foie of a Palace of Culture in Baghdad). I will analyze the process and the result of the creation of these works within the concept of socialist realism ideology in art and art education in the USSR and the form and shape it took in the works of Iraqi students. At the same time, I will also look into a possible role that these works might have played in Baghdad’s public space. Intended to change the urban environment in the capital of Iraq, these works were created with strong political and social messages, relevant and urgent at the time of their creation and, possibly, even today.

Mahmoud Sabri. Watani, 1962-1963. Source: Personal archive of Abdulla Haba. Click to enlarge.

What makes this archival discovery significant is the fact that these artworks have never been studied and have remained almost completely forgotten to this day. And it is only thanks to the archival documents that we have an opportunity to learn more about Iraqi students in the USSR, and about various conflicting conditions they had to grapple with both in Iraq and the USSR: a vast but largely alien visual patrimony of the Socialist realism, as well as the sociopolitical environment of the time. Iraqi artists had to digest the influence of the Soviet indoctrination through art and through everyday life and go beyond it in their attempts to forge modern examples of national art, based on selective appropriation of historical, religious, literary and folk inheritance. All of them sincerely believed that their experiments and efforts would not only assert their visual identity, but actually would contribute to the formation of modern Iraqi identities. Unfortunately that never happened – none of these art projects were realized.


Read more about Olga Nefedova and her work in our ‘People’ section.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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