Baghdad's good overtakes the bad

By Gail Bailey

"It doesn't work to celebrate bad memories," says Iraqi artist Samer Usama Hatam, whose first New Zealand exhibition is at the Judith Anderson Gallery. My City, a series of graphite and acrylic abstract paintings, contains memories of his youth in Baghdad.

Hatam spent his first 27 years in Baghdad and, after the 1991 Gulf War, left with his wife and children to live in Jordan. He emigrated to New Zealand in 2003.

In My City he tries to reflect his "bright ideas" about a country that is known as the root of civilisation.

As a child, Hatam visited the Iraq Museum, which has one of the most extensive collections of Mesopotamian artefacts in the world. He credits the work of the Sumerians - the cultural forerunners of what is now Iraq - as a constant visual foundation for most of his work to date.

"Their art work is full of abstraction, full of life. You can see it, feel it. So it gives me a treasure of ideas and symbols."

This endless resource of history is evident when you walk through My City. Some of the paintings are like coming face to face with a prehistoric archaeological site - geometrical shapes in reference to stepped ziggurats - yet these paintings are definitely modern.

Acrylic mixed with graphite powder gives the paintings a metallic effect.

This combination of the ancient and the modern is indicative, clearly, of Baghdad's long history.

As an artist, Hatam was so exposed to Western art and civilisation. "In Iraq, we produce arts that are Western art. Even the concept of hanging art on the wall is Western."

Trained in printmaking at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, Hatam had a long love affair with the pencil.

"I like the glow, the reflection of pencil."

After trying to acquire this sheen with lead, a medium in which he produced a series of paintings for a show in Jordan, Hatam soon tired of its heavy, impractical nature.

As an alternative, he decided on graphite powder mixed with acrylic, which gives most of the series its metallic effect.

One could be forgiven for thinking on first viewing that the paintings are remarkable pieces of metalwork, polished and refined. The minimal use of colour, something Hatam attributes to his printmaking background, also heightens this metallic impression.

"Metal gives you this cold feeling. It keeps you away from strong emotions."

Although "not against the heart", Hatam adopts a more cerebral approach to art.

"Sometimes you feel so in love with a painting emotionally. I want people to see my work with their mind, not with their heart."

Several paintings have bullet-shaped holes, which may strike an emotional chord with some visitors, but Hatam insists the series is not meant to represent what is going on in his country.

"I always try to be far from politics. That is past and now is happening. I have bad memories, yes. Always I try to avoid this. I really hate what is happening, all this breaking of balance, of people trying to break the balance."

Through My City, Hatam tries to bring back a sense of equilibrium. The paintings usually have a symmetry of geometrical figures and, in a further effort to maintain order, some of the paintings are held together by what appears to be metal bandages, keeping memories secure from spilling out.

Hatam admits he "tries to do something to hold the image with pieces of metal, which are the shiniest in my paintings. I do this on purpose. It's the last part I do."

At Baghdad's Institute of Fine Arts, where he learned sculpture, ceramics, painting and design, Hatam decided to specialise in printmaking because it was "so dirty and complicated, yet came out clean and tidy and so full of expression".

Exhibition

* What: My City, by Samer Usama Hatam

* Where and when: Judith Anderson Gallery, 28 Lorne St, to Feb 12

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