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‘Ishtar in Basra’: Artist Reimagines Iraq Through Myth and History

A longing for a genuine Iraqi identity and explicit political statements are hallmarks of “Ishtar in Basra”, an exhibition of works by the Iraqi artist Ali Al Tajer at Amman’s Orfali Art Gallery.

The exhibition, which continues through December 14, displays more than 51 paintings weaving together themes from ancient Mesopotamia to the medieval Maqamat manuscript to Iraq’s modern history.

Al Tajer’s style recalls the brutal colours of French artist Henri Matisse, Gustav Klimt’s symbolism, and even Francisco Goya’s grotesque black paintings.

Yet “I belong to no specific art school,” Al Tajer said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. “I think what is important is to have one spirit in each work. But I tend to use Expressionism and adore the works of Klimt and his student Egon Schiele.”

Homage to Basra

Now based in Amman, Al Tajer was born in Karbala in 1962 and graduated from Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts in 1987. But the years he spent in Basra in the mid-1970s, he said, were the most amazing in his life.

“I belong to no specific art school. I think what is important is to have one spirit in each work.”

Ali Al Tajer

“A seaport that once gave its name to the entire Gulf, and a cosmopolitan metropolis, Basra is the product of the cultural diversity and openness it achieved from being a crossroad of trade routes,” said Al Tajer. “For me, Basra is a model for all Iraq’s cities. Its current situation is an image of Iraq: what had happened, what is still happening, and what we aspire for.”

The exhibition’s name, “Ishtar in Basra”, comes from Al Tajer’s huge work of the same title. It depicts the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar clad in a white wedding dress on a folkloric Basra boat, accompanied by three maidservants. The boatmen—half-man, half-fish—are sages from Apkallu legend.

The painting borrows elements from several myths, including the legend of Inanna in the Boat of Heaven, in which Inanna, the Sumerian name of Ishtar, carries the divine decrees of civilization from Uruk to Enki, god of water, in Eridu.

Al Tajer juxtaposes ancient symbols, like the three maidservants representing Ishtar’s faces and her relation to the moon cycle and fertility, and a background of modern-day Basra.

In another work, Al Tajer made a lapis-lazuli blue wood Boat of Heaven in which he seated a replica of a sculpture of a Sumerian man and woman (2,500 B.C.) from the Temple of Inanna at Nippur, in southern Iraq.

Mythic and Modern History

In many of his works, Al Tajer draws parallels between ancient myths and contemporary literature and history.

Depicting renowned poets in controversial ways, like linking Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri (1899-1997) with the journeys of Sinbad, Al Tajer mocks the audience’s delight in beautiful words at the expense of truth. “Perhaps this reminds us of one of Abdullah al-Qasemi’s books, ‘Arabs Are a Sonorous Phenomenon,’ he said.

Images from ‘Ishtar in Basra’

In more political statements, Al Tajer condemns coups and shows his royalist nostalgia for the Kingdom of Iraq, which was overthrown in 1958.

In an untitled work (2020), he depicts three coloured fish, one inside another, with their heads as those of Abd al-Karim Qasim (who led the coup in 1958), Saddam Hussein (who came to power in 1979), and a Shiite clergyman (the post-2003 ruling class).

The 1958 coup “was the start of a bad era of successive coups in Iraq that took us from worse to worst,” said Al Tajer.

Another work portrays the Iraqi Kurdish general Bakr Sidqi (1890–1937), who led the first military coup in Iraq’s modern history.

In that work, titled “Qumqum” (“The Bottle”), the cuneiform sign for god is turned into guns. “It is as if we were in front of a scene from the Epic of Erra when the war god Erra removed Marduk, the god of construction, from his throne in Babylon, leaving the city in rubble,” Al Tajer explained.

Alternative History

In three fantasy themes, Al Tajer imagines alternative scenarios to the 1958 coup and another turning point in Iraq’s modern history, the 1920 rebellion against the British occupation.

“It highlights social and political issues since the Royal era so far, with an obvious touch inspired by Iraq’s ancient history and symbols.”

Salih Elias  
The cultural desk officer at the Iraqi Embassy in Amman

“The first imagines the coup leaders Qasim and Abdul Salam Arif establishing an opposition party to monitor and peacefully correct the government’s lapses,” Al Tajer explained. “The second imagines the arrest of the coup leaders after their coup failed.”

Surprisingly, the third work imagines that the 1920 rebels were able to expel the British occupation and gather to celebrate in a picture showing Iraq’s diversity and contradictions.

“The scene is dominated by tribal leaders, a reminder of the ones we have now,” said Al Tajer. “The viewer has the full right to judge this alternative scenario.”

Another painting imagines that Karl Marx was executed by later Marxist leaders, like Lenin, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, among others.

“This shows the difference between the charm of an idea and the distortion inflicted on it after being applied on the ground, when it becomes linked to ideological fanaticism and the abolition of the other,” Al Tajer said.

The Covid-19 pandemic also prompted Al Tajer to express his ideas on the importance of science. “In Search for Hope” depicts a scientist sitting at a microscope surrounded by a desperate crowd of political, military and religious leaders.

‘Amazingly Accomplished’

Salih Elias, the cultural desk officer at the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, described the exhibition as “extraordinary”.

“It highlights social and political issues since the Royal era so far, with an obvious touch inspired by Iraq’s ancient history and symbols.”

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Elias admired the artist’s choice of topics. “His controversial themes and protagonists attract the visitors,” he said. “Personally, I stood twice or thrice to contemplate his paintings. The details were just amazingly accomplished.”

Zaid Issam, an Amman-based Iraqi architect, also attended the exhibition.

“It is an excellent exhibition. The artworks touch the conscience of every Iraqi,” he told Al-Fanar Media. “The artist is not shy to express his own intellectual ideas and his personal reading of reality and history.”

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