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Faiq Hassan: Celebrating Iraqi Folk Life

23 April 2024

By Arthur Debsi

Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art spotlights work from one of the foremost Iraqi painters in modern history.

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Faiq Hassan (1914–1992) was one of the very first art students in Iraq, benefitting from a government scholarship to study abroad in Paris in 1935. Three years later, in Baghdad, he was appointed director of the newly opened Ma’had al-Funun al-Jamila (Institute of Fine Arts), heading it until 1962. Playing such a significant role, Faiq Hassan was consequently part of the generation of ‘al-Ruwwad’ (the Pioneers), a group of artists recognised for implementing an innovative artistic vision in the country.

Although Hassan didn’t officially join many of his peers in the Jama’at Baghdad lil-Fann al-Hadith (The Group of Baghdad for Modern Art) when it was founded in 1951, he did adhere to the collective’s artistic concept of istilham al-turath (seeking inspiration from the heritage), as seen in this painting, entitled Woman with a Branch of Dates and dated between 1950 and 1959.

Currently on display in Gallery 8 as part of Mathaf’s permanent collection, the artwork reveals an Iraqi woman in an abstract depiction of a village. Standing in the middle of the composition, she is wearing a black chador and is holding a basket in which she has put a branch of dates. Depicting daily life of people in the countryside was characteristic of Hassan’s  practice, which also included experimentations with the combination of modern subjects and ancient aesthetics.


Faiq Hassan, Woman with a Branch of Dates, 1950-1959, oil on board, 75 x 61 cm. Courtesy of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

In Woman with a Branch of Dates, Hassan effectively adopts a modern style, while simultaneously alluding to the style of artistic production in ancient Mesopotamia. Drawing thin black lines, he reduced the different elements into abstract overlapping shapes, mainly polygonal. The seemingly primitive aspect of the overall work is remarkable in the stereotypical features of the main character, whose almond-shaped eyes remind one of those carved in the Sumerian sculptures from the third millennium BC.  Hassan’s choice of colours – including brown and dark red – conjure images of artefacts like pottery and sculptures from ancient Mesopotamia.

Hassan’s depiction, in which the woman has taken the branch of dates from the palm next to her, imagines her as representative of the Iraqi people,  harnessing the riches of their own country.

Although the art of the portrait was once reserved for important figures, here, the artist portrayed an ordinary person from the Iraqi working class. Hence, the pictorial theme in Woman with a Branch of Dates is relevant to the nationalistic feeling, which was increasing within the local population at the time. As a matter of fact, the artwork was completed within the last decade of the pro-British Kingdom of Iraq, which was overthrown by the revolution led by Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914-1963) on 14 July, 1958.

Through Woman with a Branch of Dates, Faiq Hassan restored dignity to the Iraqi people, the way Mahmoud Mokhtar had done for the Egyptian people twenty years earlier. In the context of the independence movements, Arab artists elevated the everyday figures to nationalistic symbols, revealing the local population's belonging to a millennia-old civilisation and connection to ancient territory. They would thus legitimise the fight for national sovereignty.

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Admission to Mathaf is free and includes entrance to temporary special exhibitions. Reserve free tickets in advance to select your preferred time slot.