Interview with Sarah Johnson | AMCA | Association for Modern + Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran + Turkey

Interview with Sarah Johnson

In 2018 the Committee for the Rhonda A. Saad Prize for Best Paper in Modern and Contemporary Arab Art chose to award Sarah Johnson for her submission, “”Impure Time: Archaeology, Hafidh Druby (1914-1991), and the persistence of representational art in mid-twentieth century Iraq (1940-1980).” Combining Arabic and English archival sources with visual analysis, the paper looks at the way the process of archaeology encouraged Iraqi artists, such as Hafidh Druby (1914- 1991), to create representational narrative artworks and how archaeology legitimized representational painting as a valid form of modern art.

Sarah C. Johnson is a doctoral candidate at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where she is completing a dissertation on the Iraqi modern artist Hafidh Druby (1914-1991). Previously she was a curator of Islamic Collections at the British Museum in London and a researcher at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC. She completed her master’s degree in Islamic art and archaeology at the University of Oxford in 2014 and her undergraduate degree in art and archaeology at Princeton University in 2010. She is currently based in Beirut as a Doctoral Fellow at the Orient Institut.

The following interview, which is the second in our Rhonda A. Saad Prize interview series, was conducted by Sarah Rogers on behalf of AMCA in March 2018:

AMCA: How did you develop your research project on the relationship between archaeology and modernism in Iraq?

SJ: It began with the artist Hafidh Druby, about whom I am writing my PhD thesis. I knew that he had painted many murals depicting ancient sites in Iraq, such as Babylon and Hatra. However, I did not consider that the aesthetics of the paintings, which were done in an academic realist style, had anything to do with archaeology. I then read several articles Druby wrote on archaeology, and to my surprise, he incorporated his paintings into his analysis of archaeology. From these writings, I understood that his paintings were part of the practice of archaeology in Iraq and that their aesthetics were dictated by that practice. This, I felt, was something new and exciting, because the realist style in the modern Middle East is usually associated with Soviet realism, propaganda, or copying of European models. From there, I found that this influence of archaeological practice was more widespread among Iraqi artists and worthy of a larger project. 

AMCA: In your paper, you discuss two approaches among modern artists to archaeology, one that is influenced by forms and another by practice. You focus on the latter. Here, could you elaborate a bit on the distinction between the two approaches and any possible collaborations among artists?

SJ: While Iraqi artists integrated archaeology into their paintings in what I see as two distinct categories, they all were themselves embedded in archaeology in some way – either working for the National Museum or the Department of Antiquities. In this sense, archaeology was a strong unifying factor for Iraqi artists throughout the twentieth century. Artists like Hafidh Druby, Ata Sabri, and Jewad Selim collaborated on archaeological sites. Druby and his student, Dia Azzawi, collaborated on Druby’s paintings such as Qadasiyya. However, artists such as Selim and Azzawi were not interested in the practice of archaeology itself in their art but in the artifacts it uncovered. They used these artifacts to create what they perceived as distinctly Iraqi modern forms. On the other hand, Druby and Sabri saw the practice of archaeology as a form of modernity. They used this practice to guide the aesthetics of their paintings.

AMCA: Modernism outside Europe and America is often considered as belated and derivative in its formal languages, how do you see your research as challenging this paradigm?

SJ: I look at artwork that was important in its local context regardless of what it looks like. Many of Druby’s paintings, particularly his archaeological paintings, were purposefully derivative. He felt that emulating European models would lead to Modernism in Iraq. What is important to me is not whether or not they were derivate, but why they were. Druby’s choice to emulate European models was deliberate, and the reason for his choice says something important about the context in which his paintings were made, regardless of how we perceive his art today. It is one of the privileges and perhaps obligations of a PhD project in art history not to filter for what we find interesting or aesthetic pleasing but to study what was important in its historic context.

AMCA: Tell us a little about your methodologies and how you situate your work within the field of modern and contemporary Arab art?

SJ: I chose to work with a single artist for my PhD because I wanted to look at an entire span of art production without filtering for a specific theme and to see what questions that would answer. For one, it brought me to the archaeology project. I also felt this specific focus was necessary because we still know so little about Iraqi modern art. We don’t even know the birthdate for many artists. By focusing on one artist, I am able to collect information more easily. It often opens doors to archives because it is easy for people to understand the material I am looking for. More generally, I am interested in questions of form, particularly realism in modern Arab art, public art, and exhibition histories, among other subjects.

AMCA: One aspect of your paper commented on by the committee was your extensive use of archives in relationship to visual analysis. In our field, archives are dispersed or held by families and difficult to access. Share with us some of the challenges and rewards of your archival investigations.

SJ: Finding archives and material is the hardest part of working with modern Arab art and is not highlighted enough in the final product of our research. I would love to find a way for our publications to bring out the process of our research more. For me, the biggest challenge was the lack of surviving paintings or even good images of those paintings. As I was writing my paper, two of Druby’s archaeological paintings were looted from the Mosul Museum. However, I decided that it was more important to preserve the history and the paintings as far as we can see them today rather than to dismiss the topic completely. There were also many wonderful surprises along the way: for example, finding the original photograph of the artists Druby and Sabri painting in the archaeology museum in Baghdad. One of the best moments was strolling through the Pergamon Museum one day and coming across Elizabeth Andrae’s archaeological paintings. Despite these discoveries, access is still greatly limited because so much is held in private collections. I will always know that my knowledge is fragmentary. Also because this private material is often restricted, what is allowed to be published and shown to the public is extremely fragmentary too.

AMCA: Please tell us a little about your research now at the Orient Institut in Beirut

SJ: I am conducting field research for my PhD project. There are several important collections of Iraqi art in Beirut. In one in particular, the collector bought works directly from Druby in Baghdad in the 1970s. This type of provenance is extremely rare, and it is important to highlight works with clear provenance that still exist. I am also interested in the artistic dialogue between Baghdad and other Arab countries in the mid-twentieth century. Beirut’s Sursock Museum held an Iraqi art exhibition in the 1960s, which Druby played an active role in. Less glamourous but equally important, Beirut provides access to Arabic books and journals. With so much archival material on modern Iraqi art lost or difficult to access, any writings illustrating what contemporary critics and artists thought about the art is as important as the paintings themselves.