June 10, 2004
Kurdish painter finds beauty in truth
Himat Mohammed Ali wonders if returning to Iraq might
best be left a dream
By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Daily Star staff
BEIRUT: A few years ago, Himat Mohammed Ali, the
44-year-old painter who goes by his first name only, was
participating in a group exhibition in Baghdad. The
organizers asked him to make the invitation, and he
responded with an abstract image bursting in reds and
turquoises. A well-known Iraqi artist came to the show,
looked at the invitation, and said: "Nice colors. But I
could never use them." The combination was just too
jarring. "The red I can understand," he said, "but not
"I can use them," Himat said quietly.
"But why, how?"
"Because I'm Kurdish."
Himat is telling this story while balancing on a high
stool, elbows and shoulders hunched over a marble
countertop in the storefront space of Beirut's Agial Art
Gallery. To punctuate the punch line, a quick and
mischievous smile flashes over his face.
It's a stereotypical explanation turned around, he
explains, twirling two silver rings on the fingers of
his left hand, one set with dull black stone, the other
one deep and shining red. People often regard his
paintings - multilayered abstractions all blending
organic and geometric forms - and comment on the
Kurdishness of his color scheme.
Indeed, to survey the 34 canvases on view at Agial, the
artist's first show ever in Beirut, is to brace your
eyes against an assault of vibrant shades and hues.
There are sun-like splashes of yellow and orange mixed
with moody mauves, bright blues, and hyper-succulent
greens, all meshed into a web of earth tones, rusted
reds and unforgiving browns.
"For me, it is simple to see the Kurdish colors," says
Himat, because his paintings have the same exuberance
and brightness of Kurdish carpets and Kurdish clothes.
"But the important thing is what you can find that's
more, what you can find that's different. It's very easy
to see this as Kurdish. And I like to be Kurdish," he
adds, "but international Kurdish."
Here, Agial's owner and director Saleh Barakat
interjects: "Kurdish without the fundamentalist approach
to Kurdish nationalism; Kurdish in the sense that he is
somebody who has this strong attachment to strong
colors. But not particularly to be Kurdish because he is
part of a Kurdistan nationalist party or something."
Himat prefers the approach to national and artistic
identity articulated by Eduardo Challida, the Spanish
sculptor who once compared himself to a tree, saying
that his roots were in the Basque, but his branches were
"Yani, you have an imperialistic approach!" says Barakat.
"No, no, no!" laughs Himat.
Born in Kirkuk in 1960, Himat has shown his work in
numerous solo exhibitions in Paris, Tokyo, Switzerland,
the Netherlands and throughout the Arab world. He got a
boost to his profile with the recent, well-toured
exhibition and book project "Strokes of Genius:
Contemporary Iraqi Art." And his work now sells for $600
to $6,000. But he may be best known for his joint
projects with such poets as Adonis, Kassem Haddad, and
other French and Japanese men of letters.
But despite his attraction to the written word, he says:
"Sometimes it is not important for me what I do.
Sometimes, what I have inside I want to speak. Sometimes
you go the coffee with someone, you've been in the house
all day, you want to get out and speak, and it doesn't
matter what you say or to whom."
It's worth noting that Himat went through an
impressionable period where his paintings were far less
colorful. He reduced his compositions to black and
white, not because he was down - Himat insists that his
use of color is exactly the opposite of, say, German
Expressionism, as his colors are not intended to evoke
mood, tone, or emotion - but because he had no other
materials at his disposal but black ink and white paper.
"I went to Japan, and for six months, I didn't paint. So
for me, it was like prison." Himat had traveled for a
show and planned to stay in Japan for just two months,
the duration of the exhibition's run. "This was 1990.
There was the war, Iraq and Kuwait, I don't know what. I
decided I didn't want to go back," he says. "Two months
has now become 15 years.
"I didn't have my materials. I didn't have my canvases,
my oils. So I found Japanese inks and someone gave me
Japanese paper." He painted with them for two weeks
straight. "When I finished, I couldn't stop. So I
painted the side of the house. And when I was finished
with that, finally I relaxed. I felt empty. When I do
this, it's for what I have inside. And sometimes the
place decides for me what I do. When I come here," for
example, "if I stayed in Lebanon, I could find my
materials and automatically (my painting) changes, not
the style but maybe the form, maybe the color."
As someone made rootless from his country, this sense of
movable place has become a strong undercurrent in
Himat's work. Every painting may be viewed as a
landscape, as the artist hones in on portions of
wilderness - a thicket of trees, a bunch of flowers, a
handful of stray leaves - and breaks them apart in his
compositions. Yet his touch is not violent but smooth.
Himat is now based in France, where by his own admission
he leads something of a hermit's existence, painting
every day and often all day. He works out of a studio in
Paris's 18th district so small that he can rarely stand
two of his larger canvases side by side. There, using
acrylics, oils, lithographic inks and paper, he
constructs and deconstructs his paintings, sometimes
cutting up a series of canvases to make an entirely new
creation out of the scraps.
"I cut, I mix, I make another painting," he says.
"Sometimes it is like playing for me, like children."
Himat also says he prefers not to represent what he sees
but rather to recreate it. In this way, his work bears a
curious resemblance to that of the cubists. His impulse
toward abstraction comes not from a physical gesture
that conducts an emotion from limb through brush to
canvas, but from an effort to capture some sense of
Commenting on a recent survey in London on cubism and
its legacy, Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian:
"Cubism was never a style ... It was an inquiry ... Art
today is made from the building blocks of ordinary life.
Cubism took these building blocks, or working premises,
apart ... 'I went to the cafe' - cubism asks what a cafe
is, what is it to go, and, most provocatively of all,
who the hell you are."
One hundred years after Braque and Picasso, Himat may
have stumbled into their previously and deeply etched
groove accidentally or by instinct. But where he skips
off that cubist groove is in his notion of beauty.
According to Jones: "Cubism claims to be not beautiful,
Himat, by contrast, has said: "My artwork is an attempt
to discover the truth. To me the truth equals beauty and
therefore my artistic search is primarily an aesthetic
It would be easy also to read into that artistic search
a quest for home, homeland, return, back. "You need
that," he says. "But sometimes it is not important.
Because maybe if I sent you to your country, your city,
your village, you couldn't live there today. Everywhere
you have negative and positive."
On the likelihood of him going home anytime soon, in
light of the current conditions in Iraq, he spins the
rings on his fingers once more and adjusts his
precarious pose. "Sure (it's difficult)," he says. "It's
my dream to go back, but I don't know. Sometimes if the
dream stays a dream it's better."
Himat's paintings are on view at Beirut's Agial Art
Gallery in Hamra through June 19. For more information,