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Zeana Atarbashi: Women and History Inspire an Engineer-Turned-Artist

Crossing the Tigris River on her way from school to her father’s sport store in Mosul’s old city, Zeana Atarbashi would pass by Nineveh’s ancient walls, winged bulls, and old neighborhoods. These images of cultural history, engraved in her memory, helped shape the future artist-to-be.

“I realized early how rich Iraq and Mosul’s heritage is,” said Atarbashi, an Iraqi-Canadian artist now based in Dubai. “I was fond of art and preferred buying sketchbooks and paints over dolls. Archaeological sites in Hatra and Samarra were my favorite places for vacations.”

Like the majority of students in the region, however, Atarbashi put aside her hobby and got a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Mosul.

In the 1980s, she left Iraq for Greece, where she worked in transport research and development and studied Greek at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the country’s largest university. Atarbashi loved the Greek culture, music and people, and for 11 years found a second home in Thessaloniki.

“I speak Greek fluently. My son was born there,” she said. “Greek people are so kind and joyful. We have many mutual things, especially the cuisine.”

From Engineering to Art 

In 1999, Atarbashi moved to Toronto to work for the global architecture firm IBI Group. The firm’s expansion took her back to Dubai in 2007.

However, Atarbashi never stopped listening to her oldest passion.

“Art is different [from engineering] as it nurtures both our sentiment and taste,” she said. “It is an important aesthetic and intellectual expression tool. Any artwork translates the artist’s intellectual memory and imagination.”

In Thessaloniki, she had taken many art classes. However, her talent was only discovered and sharpened by the famed Syrian painter, sculptor and poet Suheil Baddor in 2016.

“I attended Dr. Baddor’s classes just to keep drawing,” she said. “But he told me I can have a place in the art scene. So I took more classes to express my message through colors.”

Over four years, Baddor influenced Atarbashi’s style, theoretically and artistically. “He was a brilliant mentor and a faithful source of inspiration,” she said.

Baddor thinks Atarbashi is seriously working to find a particular place in presenting Iraq’s civilization according to her own artistic vision.

“She is working on a blend to offer new artistic solutions, which is a little bit advanced among Iraqi women artists,” he said. “She is a determined, patient and open-minded person.”

“She is working on a blend to offer new artistic solutions, which is a little bit advanced among Iraqi women artists. She is a determined, patient and open-minded person.”

Suheil Baddor  
Syrian painter, sculptor and poet

Celebrating Women and History

In 2019, Atarbashi held her first art exhibition in Dubai to present her vision of Mesopotamian civilization to the world and to younger generations.

In bold and daring colors, Atarbashi used obvious ancient Iraqi themes in her paintings—Assyrian winged bulls, curly-haired Sumerian worshippers, lyres, and mother goddesses of the Neolithic Hassuna culture (6500 B.C.)—besides women with a crystalline touch of pioneering contemporary Iraqi artists.

“Women and history are my sources of inspiration,” she said. “A woman, for me, is the womb of all the creativity we see on earth, the fertile land from which sprouts the tree of life.”

Imitating heritage is challenging, says Baddor. It requires a blending of legacy with the artist’s own vision to produce a painting.

“She is searching and trying well, with her artistic solutions,” he said. “The results are more than satisfactory so far.”

Baddor also thinks Atarbashi has benefited from moving between cultures.

“This direct interculturalism, with Greek culture in particular, her growing up in Mosul and traveling the world, gave her a great visual, humanistic and intellectual repertoire,” he said. (See a related article, “An Encounter with a Mosul Photographer.”)

Mesopotamian Features, Owls and Rebellion 

Atarbashi researches her themes well ahead.

“The Mesopotamian touch is obvious in my works; the eyes, faces, jewelry and hairstyles,” she said. “Art books, especially a book by the Iraqi archaeologist Zainab Bahrani, helped me in this regard. I like these features and I am proud of them.”

The artist explains her ideas to visitors to her first solo exhibition in Dubai in 2019. The painting shows a bull-headed Sumerian lyre (Photo courtesy of Zeana Atarbashi).
The artist explains her ideas to visitors to her first solo exhibition in Dubai in 2019. The painting shows a bull-headed Sumerian lyre (Photo courtesy of Zeana Atarbashi).

Bold colors are the most important pillar in her works, says Atarbashi, who sometimes uses basic primary colors directly from the paint tubes without any mixing.

Owls have a special place in Atarbashi’s imagination.

While feared as omens of death by many in the Middle East, owls mean wisdom and good luck in the West. They are also connected with Lilith, the rebellious first wife of Adam in Jewish folklore, which has roots in ancient Babylonian demons. Thus, owls became a symbol of women’s rebellion against patriarchy.

“An owl is there in all my galleries, as a symbol of wisdom,” said Atarbashi. “Even in Walt Disney an owl is always a wise teacher. For me, it is connected to the goddess Ishtar; they are both a symbol of wisdom, love, and beauty. It makes my day to see one.”

From Souvenirs to Business 

As a gesture to thank visitors to her first exhibition, Atarbashi painted some of her most popular images on silk scarves and gave them out as souvenirs.

Her son Zaid, a graduate of Columbia University and owner of the Stavros boutique in Dubai’s Gigi Concept Store, helped her carry out the idea.

“My son supports me in planning my exhibitions and choosing themes,” she said. “He also found his passion in fashion design.”

As visitors welcomed that idea, Atarbashi turned it into a business and began creating paintings on silk scarves and pillows for sale in the Stavros store.

“It was a way to help those who cannot buy a painting they loved a lot, to buy the scarf,” she said. “Some framed the scarves as paintings.”

Covid-19’s Blow to Artists

Atarbashi’s career flourished with her participation in three collective art exhibitions: Beirut’s Arab Art Fair (2019), the Helsinki InternationalFestival (2019), and the exhibition “A Changing Landscape: The Female” at Van Der Plas Gallery in Manhattan (2020).

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However, the coronavirus pandemic forced her to cancel two solo exhibitions that were planned in Thessaloniki and at Columbia University’s library.

“The pandemic affected not only exhibitions, whole countries and museums were locked,” she said. “But we will recover.”

The lockdowns painfully hit artists who depend on sales of their work. But Atarbashi managed to find a way out.

“Online sales take over,” she said. “The budget saved for traveling was directed to investing in purchasing artworks in the U.A.E.”

Atarbashi is optimistic that Dubai’s rising art scene will recover.

Art Dubai will be open late this month,” she said. “Both citizens and residents miss Dubai’s art events. I am excited to participate within the Canadian Pavilion at the Expo 2021, expected in Dubai in October, besides another solo exhibition in Miami.”


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