1. How did you become interested in the sculptural works of Mohammed Ghani?
Mohammed Ghani has long been one of my favorite Iraqi artists. I find his preliminary sketches to be poignantly beautiful in their stark linear simplicity and rhythm that, in fact, belies the complexities of his rendered forms. There seems to be an endless array of interpretive possibilities and each time I look at a collection of his drawings I discover new patterns, new ways that the lines move and fit together, new directions of action. Needless to say, I never grow bored of them. As a lover of visual narrative, I am also continually struck by Ghani’s versatility as a storyteller. From the sketchpad to monumental marble, his figures are dynamic, energetic, and imaginative, conveying the peaks and valleys of some of humanity’s most stories and characters – from Gilgamesh to Jesus Christ to Scheherazade. Thus, exploring Ghani’s oeuvre is an exciting prospect and can be extremely satisfying in that his works always have something to give to the viewer. The longevity and variety of his career only adds to this continual well of interest. There is certainly much more to discover, and I feel privileged to be one of the scholars writing about his works.
2. Like many modern artists in the Baghdad Group of Modern Art, as well as in the region, Ghani engaged with ancient forms and archaeological artifacts like cylinder seals, orthostats, and stelae. What differentiates or stands out about Ghani’s thinking and practice from those of his colleagues?
Certainly, Ghani was a man of his time and a man of his country. That is to say, he moved within the artistic trends of mid-twentieth century Iraq wherein many artists were embracing the nation’s rich ancient heritage as a wellspring of inspiration for modern art practice. He was not alone in the pursuit of the past. However, I would argue that Ghani wasunique in that he not only embraced the iconographies, motifs, and narratives of Mesopotamian antiquity, but also the sculptural supports of his claimed predecessors. Some may say that this is simply by virtue of his medium. Yet, I think Ghani consciously sought to identify directly with Sumerian and Assyrian sculptural traditions in the modality of production, not simply representation. This is where a discussion of seals, orthostats, and stelae becomes really interesting and important. Ghani uses these forms as the foundational matrices of his practice and, I would venture further to say, he sees himself participating in the spirit of these ancient sculptural methods, finding kinship with the Mesopotamian craftsman.
3. Murals and monumental artworks were central to the career of many modern artists, with conceptual, political, and financial dimensions at times at odds with artists’ visions for themselves or for society. What tensions did you encounter during your research?
This is an important question for artists, like Ghani, who worked in Iraq during the Saddam regime. Saddam Hussein, of course, cultivated an extensive propaganda apparatus that infamously relied on historical references to bolster the personality cult of the dictator. As a monument maker, Ghani was pulled into the public art campaign of the regime and he indeed produced several works for Saddam, including public statues and commemorative medals. The implications of this are myriad, producing many questions that need unpacking. Thus, I found and continue to find it necessary to address this tension within my research and analyses of Ghani’s career in the latter half of the twentieth century. He was not the only artist to negotiate leftist ideologies and the desire for artistic freedoms with the realities of authoritarian rule that actively and violently quashed liberal thinking and free expression. Were these artists complacent in the regime’s repressive policies? Was their artistic production then somehow compromised? Did they profit from the regime’s craving for artistic support? Did artists uniformly and unequivocally adopt historical imagery only to appeal to the Ba’athist ideologies of the past? What does that mean for artists already using this imagery, like Ghani? How can we distinguish the ‘good’ art from the ‘bad’ art when all visual production is seemingly tainted with Saddam’s political agendas (even crimes)? How involved was the regime in the careers of individual artists? Was there any room for creative freedom? With these questions swirling, the tension I faced was how to maintain a critical stance whilst also giving my subject the benefit of understanding, allowing for the inevitable complications (and messiness) of historical realities.
4. One of the hallmarks of our field is the relative absence of centralized and/or public archives. What archives did you consult for this study? What challenges have you faced in accessing them?
The relative lack of official archives and easily available primary source documents is indeed a challenge, but also an opportunity. In the place of institutionally organized archival repositories there are networks of people. Establishing these networks takes time and trust, but I have found that Iraqis are extremely generous, proud of their culture, and passionate about sharing it. My work on Mohammed Ghani, for instance, was immeasurably aided by a series of individuals who shared source material and stories, primary among them was Hajer Ghani, the artist’s daughter, and her mother Ghaya al-Rahhal. I really cannot thank Hajer enough for her willingness and availability to help with all my inquiries. Also, during the initial stages of research, I was fortunate to travel to Amman where I worked with Ameena al-Shawi and Dr. Hasanain al-Ibrahimi at the wonderful Ibrahimi Collection and Library. Dia al-Azzawi’s studio library in London also proved a rich archive for this research and, of course, if you look hard enough there are always nuggets of gold in places like the British Library. In terms of personal papers – sketchbooks, letters, and the like – these remain in the private archives of artists and their families. Things, however, are changing as people realize the value of what they have and seek institutional support to make documents available to a wider public.
Studying monumental, public artworks produced in and around Baghdad provides its own set of research challenges. Many of the works I discuss in my study rely heavily on the locations in which they were commissioned, created for, and placed. Yet, I was unable to travel to Baghdad to see the monuments in situ. This is where those networks of people were indispensable and, oddly enough, social media proved fruitful in obtaining current images and anecdotes about Ghani’s Baghdadi monuments.
5. How does your research build on or differ from other studies of modern and contemporary art in Iraq and/or elsewhere?
My research is indebted to the tireless work of scholars and writers like Nada Shabout, Zainab Bahrani, May Muzaffar, and more recently Saleem al-Bahloly who have paved the way for more in-depth analyses of individual Iraqi artists and their practices. The details of my study of Mohammed Ghani’s career are based in the critical writings of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Shawkat al-Rubaie, critics who wrote extensively on the artist’s sculptures in various publications from the 1960s into the 1990s. It is common in these writings and in the scholarship of today to find Ghani discussed in relation to his love of Iraqi history – identifying with the stories, the characters, and the connections. Yet, Ghani’s use of antiquity – its stories, iconographies, and methods – is not fully excavated for deeper art historical meanings. Indeed, his use of the past is taken for granted with the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ left largely unexplored. In my study, I hope to bring new methodological perspectives to the investigation of Ghani’s relief practice in order to ask how exactly is antiquity being utilized in the artworks themselves, why are references to the ancient past significant within the artist’s career but also within larger paradigms of modern art practice in Iraq. By using methodologies and theories like visual narrative, mythology and time, and to some extent artist biography, I am seeking to suggest new ways to conduct rigorous visual analyses, hopefully as a means to allow Ghani’s artworks to speak beyond a referential language (the ‘what’ questions) and move into the spirit of the works.
6. Can you tell us more about your dissertation/current research projects?
My study on Mohammed Ghani is part of my larger dissertation project that uses methodologies of time to investigate the works of Ghani, Dia al-Azzawi, and Faisel Laibi Sahi. In particular, I am interested in the how these artists forged a relationship to Iraq’s ancient Mesopotamian past through various means of cultural connection and, by extension, what these connections meant in the larger contexts in which these artists practiced.