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Iraqi artist's work spans East, West

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani talks about his humble beginnings and his rise to prominence in the global art world.
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NEW YORK — Iraqi painter Ahmed Alsoudani’s experience is unique. When he came to the United States in 2000, he had no money and was not fluent in English. But, after a few years, he obtained a master's degree at Yale University and became a world-renowned artist. His paintings have sold for more than $1 million and are now displayed at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, Portland Museum of Art and Pinault Foundation in Italy. Below is Al-Monitor's interview with Alsoudani on the sidelines of his exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery.

Al-Monitor:  What elements influenced your artistic experience the most: talent, culture or academic study?

Alsoudani:  I feel that I was very lucky in the 1990s, when I was in Syria after I had left Iraq. I lived in a cultural environment among Iraqi and Arab poets and artists. This enriched my life experience and allowed me to clearly set my objectives. When I arrived to the US, I knew what I wanted: I wanted to study art.

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned once that when you came to the US in 2000, you had no money and no educational degree and you did not know English. How did you obtain in 2008 a master's degree from Yale University, the world leading art university?

Alsoudani:  I did it by showing assiduity and perseverance. My objective was clear, and I was pursuing it. This goal was bigger than all of the difficulties I encountered. I used to wash dishes and take English lessons at the same time.

Al-Monitor:  Your paintings are nothing like Arab paintings — what makes them special?

Alsoudani:  Two different cultures give my paintings a distinctive character. I come from an Eastern culture and I acquired a Western culture. This allowed me to use both. My topics are inspired from the Eastern culture and my tools and visual language are derived from the West.

Al-Monitor:  The fusion of these two cultures is the most powerful distinctive feature of your work, what about talent and academic studies?

Alsoudani:  They are one of the most important elements, but not the most powerful ones. I claim to be a perseverant artist, and perseverance is the most powerful distinctive feature of my work. I work seven days a week, so I learn and discover something new every day. Talent needs practice and must be refined to gain reliability. Academic studies allowed me to have a deep interpretation of my paintings.

Al-Monitor:  How do you interpret a painting?

Alsoudani:  This is a wide subject with multiple dimensions. Part of it deals with the painting itself, its topic, timing, its elements and how to solve the relevant problems. Another part is related to my personality as an artist, the goal that I have set for myself as a painter, my position within the great history of art. What makes me different is that I work with people such as professors from Yale University, which allowed me to express myself more visibly and have a clearer objective.

Al-Monitor:  The visual elements of your paintings are wild and shocking and the use of colors seems bold and strange sometimes. Are these the elements of power in your paintings? What is the secret of the visual attraction of these paintings?

Alsoudani:  I use a surprising and unexpected color spectrum. This confers a meaning to my paintings. An element that may seem realistic from a given perspective may have another meaning when closely examined. I draw on an unprimed canvas, which generates a strange feeling for the recipient. You may find in my paintings some incomplete elements, such as the unprimed canvas and fusain lines as well as highly technical details. This is what creates the visual attraction.

Al-Monitor:  Compared to your works a few years ago, your current paintings seem harder to interpret. Paintings like Baghdad 1 and Baghdad 2 are easier to interpret, but now your paintings seem to have many dimensions, layers and sometimes contradictory elements. How do you explain that?

Alsoudani:  In the past, I used to tackle subjects such as chaos, suffering and violence in an almost direct manner. The location was clear and the elements were obvious, and the recipient interpreted my paintings with less effort and probably less fun. Now, I am trying to create a dialogue between the painting and the recipient. I do not want the subject to have a specific geographical location. In the past, I used to tackle the same subject, and now I am trying to tackle the psychological aspect of the subject. In other words, I was drawing chaos, but now I try to capture the psychological impact of chaos. The difference in the objective behind the painting creates a different interpretation by the recipient.

Al-Monitor:  You are an internationally renowned artist, yet you are not very well known in the Arab world. Why is that?

Alsoudani:  I do not find this strange. I have studied here and the exhibitions and museums that I deal with are in the US and European art markets. Most collectors of my paintings are from Europe and America. This is natural.

Al-Monitor:  How do you see Iraqi art and its position in the world art scene?

Alsoudani:  The status of Iraqi art compared to world art is just like that of Iraq compared to the world. We are not the best, but we are not the worst. Iraq has an important base of art students and fans. If advanced institutes with efficient curricula and qualified teachers are available, Iraq can create good artists. For many years, Iraqis have been living their lives as bullfighters: a constant fight with death. This dangerous way of life, which is a permanent deceit of death, can generate great art, but we remain in dire need of high-quality advanced art institutes.

Al-Monitor:  Who are your favorite Iraqi artists?

Alsoudani:  Jawad Salim and Ismail Fattah al-Turk.

Al-Monitor:  Why not Faeq Hassan and Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, for example?

Alsoudani:  Because the first two are artists and the others are craftsmen.

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