Afifa Aleiby: A Biography Reflected in Portraiture Art

By May Muzaffar

“My life is a sort of movie, like any other who lived in exile,
suffering from loneliness and deprivation”
Afifa Aleiby

In her portrayal of subjects the renowned Iraqi artist Afifa Aleiby tends to follow the symbolic figurative method. Her major art lies in the domain of portraits and landscapes, with the female figure as a recurring element reflecting her ideas of beauty, politics, and society; self portraits in particular aim to depict a specific state of mind whether challenging, rebellious or submissive, calling upon the audience to share the intensity of the scene in its full delight and splendor, or pain and misery.

I have never met Afifa Aleiby personally, and I only had the chance to know very little about her art, because she left Iraq early and there were no representations of her works in Iraq or the Middle East. To write about her I needed to know more about her personally beside the rich collection of her art works along 4 decades that I acquired in images and the very limited writings I found. Afifa was very generous and open in her elaborate statement she sent replying to my queries, and better enriched with our direct phone conversations.

Born in Basra, Southern Iraq 1952- Afifa grew up amid a cultural and artistic sur-rounding; an open minded father fond of music and frequenting cinemas with his children, her eldest brothers are gifted in painting, sculpting calligraphy even in singing. At her early age Afifa started to make drawings and copy models from various magazines available around her. Her elder brother Faisal (well known art-ist residing in London) took good care of her, since that early stage, and remained to be her first tutor and ideal. Having finished her intermediary stage, Afifa moved to Baghdad to join the Institute of Fine arts, the best laboratory for young tal-ents, while Faisal was also studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. During the five years of courses, she excelled in her art classes while she was at the same time, making drawings for different journals in Baghdad. Following her graduation in 1973, and in view of the political restrictions prevailing in Iraq, Afifa headed for Moscow (1975) in seek of further academic studies having been accepted at Surik-of Institute of Fine Arts and was granted a Master degree (1981) specializing in Mural art. According to Afifa: “Behind my escape to study in Moscow were many reasons, but the most important of them was that since my childhood, I became much impressed by the works of the Russian artists. I got acquainted with the works of the most important names in the Russian art in general and much at-tracted to the Itinerant movement and the most prominent artists of mural art in the world at that time, the immortal artist Ilya Repin, and my love for the Mex-ican Diego Rivera who is considered as one of the most prominent muralists in the world at the time.”
Her residence in Moscow deepened her knowledge as much as her artistic tools, consequently it highly developed her skills and knowledge. Frequently visiting museums, she became better aware of world art history, East and West, ancient and modern, and allowed her to become better acquainted with the great mas-terpieces displayed there. She was strongly moved by the 15-16th century art, the Naturalists, the Iconic art, Murals and found her goal in the art of the “Wander-ers”; a group of modern artists who dominated the Russian art scene at the end of the 19th century, with attempts to depict the human subjects in its formative relationship with habitats and social milieus.

From Moscow Afifa moved to Rome having got married to the Iraqi artist Jabr Alwan who resides there. Few years later she returned to Moscow, then decided to go back to her husband in Rome. She craved for motherhood and gave birth to her son, therefore became very much committed to provide a decent living for him. It was not easy to secure her living in the great capital of arts, but she was finally able to get a chance to teach art at the Institute of Fine Art in Sothern Yemen. She spent there two years, but she found that she had to leave Yemen due to the hard life in general, especially that it was not convenient for her son and went back to Rome. As marriage life proved not successful, they got separat-ed and Afifa headed for Florence, the capital of the Renaissance par excellence. She started painting in public squares, like other painters do, before she was able to work as an assistant to three Italian artists. This work did not only help her financially, but gave her the chance to better understand the real Italian society that she was, until then, living on its margin. She later worked for an antiquarian gallery commissioned to copy artworks of the 15th-16th century, portraits, land-scapes, and still life; the art of an age that fascinated her to a degree that led Afifa create portraits identifying herself with the copied models. It was necessary for her to move to different parts of Italy up to the Flanders, southern Holland, where these art works, especially the Flemish still life, were quite popular. It was such an experience that seriously enriched her career: “I acquired an excellent experience out of this practice that deepened my skills” she said. Yet, life became smoother and merciful when Afifa had the chance to be accepted as an emigrant in Holland where she finally settled, and was able to freely practice her own art and hold an exhibition in her residing city at a well known gallery interested in figurative art. In a couple of years she was granted a two year allowance to work as a full time artist that enabled her to get a private studio where she became able to spend most of her time working: “In the Netherlands, I held a number of exhibitions through which the Dutch public got to know my art; this led me to co-operate with distinguished galleries interested particularly in figurative art. But the most important exhibition in my life was at Katerina Gast Museum Huis. In my first solo exhibition at one of the important galleries in the city of The Hague, I met my future Dutch husband, Pieter Sjoerd van Koningsveld, a professor of Islamic sciences and Islamic history in Andalusia and North Africa, at the prestig-ious Leiden University, he spoke fluent Arabic. We got married after six months of acquaintance; I spent with him twenty years of happiness that I recently lost when he passed away in June, 2021.”
I intended to put down these details about Afifa’s life process in an attempt to reveal her powerful will in overriding all the difficulties she went through in the diaspora, and her struggle to fulfil her ambitions as a dedicated artist willful to achieve the goals of a talented artist and devoted mother.

From the beginning of the 1980s onward Afifa’s continuous series of paintings carry certain rhetoric messages symbolically delivered. The female is a principle element, distinguished as possessing all the qualities of beauty, sophistication and defiance. She always appears capable to deliver and communicate an idea or an insinuated discourse. Afifa’s compositions are far from being narrative, but rather, they are subjects related to the requirements of a painting seeks to deliv-er an idea in a flexible and malleable medium. The atmosphere created in Afifa’s painting is a result of her specific use of colour, light and the unyielding features strictly defined. Every single element is complementary to the outcome of the whole painting.

Afifa started her artistic life at the mid seventies in Baghdad influenced by the Impressionist school. Although the trend that attracted most of the young tal-ents then was the abstract art, Afifa insisted on practicing figurative art as a way of expressing her ideas and emotions. Her female figures assumed a very special appearance with strict features and form, rendered in deep cut linear perspective. They tend to be more like ancient statues carrying a symbolic mes-sage. In her self portraits Afifa brilliantly renders her images in a realistic style of her own, a style she uniquely came out with. In these portrait, one can view a flesh and blood female persistent, powerful and defiant despite all the agonies engraved on her face; female to her assumes the essence of the whole human beings. These portraits are the outcome of the ultimate training Afifa acquired in decades of hard work. After nearly one decade that seemed to be void of any of her production 1973-1983, she resumes in early 1980s onward with notable characteristics reflecting the strong impacts, culturally and personally, of the various schools and places she has been in since she left Iraq. The transient life provided Afifa the opportunity to see and copy many classical and renaissance master works, something she loved and immersed in. Working as a copier gave her the opportunity to explore the secrets of old masters, and experienced much more than any other artist at her time, an experience that impacted her creativity and skills in performing any subject. On the other hand the uneasy life she led for years, struggling to support her son and maintaining her career, may well be detected in her numerous variations of female images, particularly self portraits, while her dreams can be felt in her series of imagined landscapes.

Nature is the other major theme in Afifa Aleiby’s art works. It is also one of her means to deliver the sense of beauty, love, peace and tranquility. Treated at the same economy of colour and linear details, it seems to me that nature is the artist’s sanctuary; a place where she finds love, peaceful time and harmony. Yet, it also seems to be farfetched and unreachable. The elements of these scenes reflect the artist’s involvement in early civilizations. Sumerian and Assyrian sym-bolic images carved on walls such as grape clusters, palm fronds, fruits, wild plants and olives surround people in small and large archaeological sculptures, as well as in Pharaonic drawings where we see the lotus flower, a symbol of life and its continuity, wild river plants and many other fascinating details bestowed by nature.

Like almost all Iraqi artists in the diaspora, Afifa sympathies strongly with her war-stricken homeland as it struggles against the forces of distraction imposed by the hostile powers. In her depiction of her homeland’s predicament, Afifa Alei-by’s paintings delve into the glorious past of Iraq extending through millennia of years tracing its descent from the summit of its glory to its present collapse into chaos.

One of artist’s masterpieces on the Gulf war was chosen to be the poster for MoMa’s enlarged exhibition: Theatre of Operations – The Gulf Wars 1991-2011, held on November 2019- April 2020; a large scale group exhibition examines the legacies of these conflicts beginning with the Gulf War 1991. In this painting the female appears to bravely stand as a shield, or may be a sacrifice, protecting the Babylonian icon, in reference to the oldest known civilization in the land of Mes-opotamia which has been intentionally destructed. This takes me back to what the well known English author Desmond Stewart (1924-1981) wrote in mid 1950s, when he was standing amid the ruins of the great city of Babylon: “In fact, Bab-ylon was a great step in man’s upward climb: a city of justice, as the discovery of the laws of Hammurabi shows: laws carved on a great stele set up in public,1 laws which anticipated by a thousand years those of Moses himself. Babylon was not a purely military power like Nineveh. The epic of Gilgamesh, only recently deciphered completely by an American scholar, shows remarkable literary skills. ”1

May Muzaffar
Amman, 15th April 2022