Renowned Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi reflects on Rifat Chadirji’s personal collection of contemporary artwork, and the artistic collaborations in his architectural projects.
I first met Rifat Chadirji in 1966, when he and fellow architect Ma‘ath al-Alousi came to my second solo exhibition at the Iraqi Artists’ Society. Succinctly and calmly, he shared his views about the exhibited works, but then he simply left. The next day, I received a call from his office asking to reserve two paintings: The Green City and Najaf. To this day, the history of art collectors in Iraq remains vague, as many of the paintings that were acquired at the time remain hidden in private collections.
Perhaps the first exhibition that included collection details was an exhibition of works by Jewad Selim in 1968, organised by the Directorate of Arts (then known as the Ministry of Culture and Media) under the supervision of Lamaan Al-Bakri. At the time, it became clear that there were only a few important Iraqi collectors of modern art. This was confirmed in the 1990s during the economic sanctions on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait, when several artworks came to light, including those owned by the banker Sabih Mahmoud Shukry and the diplomat Bahir Faiq, a well-known figure in Baghdad, among others.
Most of these artworks were made by the first generation of modern artists, such as Faeq Hassan, Jewad Selim and Mahmoud Sabri. But we, the artists, were aware that Iraqi architects were interested in collecting modern artworks, including Rifat and his colleagues Mohamed Makiya, Qahtan Awni, the brothers Midhat and Said Ali Madhloom, and Hisham Munir, as well as other notable figures, such as the Iraqi socialite Mahmoud Shwailiya; however, Rifat and Makiya were the most distinguished amongst them. In 1964, Rifat founded the first independent gallery for modern art in Baghdad, called Aya Gallery, while Makiya, Henry Zvobda and Madhloom established a gallery in 1965 under the name Al-Wasiti Gallery, exhibiting the artwork of the artist Saadi al-Kaabi. Although Rifat’s collection differed from that of Makiya in the selection of artists and number of artworks, they both stopped purchasing artworks after the mid-1970s. This could be attributed to Rifat’s various professional engagements and circumstances, while similar circumstances forced Makiya to leave Iraq and live in London, where he practiced architecture and established an art gallery called Kufa Gallery. He would acquire one or two artworks from every exhibition held there, irrespective of the artistic value.
Rifat was an unseen observer of the artistic transformations that occurred in the mid-1960s and the years that followed, which is evident from the diverse dates of the artworks within his significant collection, reflecting the transformations and innovation through the artworks. Additionally, this can be seen in 12 of my own artworks in his collection, from the first two paintings he acquired in 1966 to those from my last exhibition in Baghdad in 1976. At the same time, he was always keen to connect with artists visiting Baghdad — on the occasion of the Syrian artist Ghyath al-Akhras’s exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Chadirji invited Akhras and me to dinner on a raft that he had transformed into a meeting place for his friends.
Rifat’s collection mainly contains paintings, as well as some printed works, a limited number of sculptural models by Mohammed Ghani, and ceramic works by Saad Shaker and Nuha al-Radi. The collection can be divided into two groups: the first represents the creativity of the artists of his own generation with whom he developed friendships and social relationships. His collection of artworks by Jewad Selim and his wife Lorna contains wonderful examples of their work, reflecting their interests and representing the evolution of their styles. From the same group of the collection, although totally different in artistic style and subject matter, is the work of another artist, Mahmoud Sabri, who was well-known for his interest in social transformations through a left-wing political viewpoint. The collection also contains amazing examples of the works of Faeq Hassan, who was often mentioned alongside Jewad Selim as the two pillars of creativity of the first generation in the history of Iraqi art. On the same list are selected artworks by other artists of the same generation, such as Khalid Al-Rahal, Hafidh Druby, Muzaffar al-Nawab and Shakir Hassan Al Said, who was one of the founders of the Baghdad Group of Modern Art. Yet, it is curious to note that the collection does not include any artworks by Kadhim Haydar.
The second group represents the artworks of a younger generation who studied art outside Iraq or those who learned from the first generation. This significant and comprehensive collection includes the works of various artists, such as myself, Rafi Nasiri, Yahya al-Sheikh, Hashim Samarchi, Widad al-Orfali, Mujbil Mazhar, Saadi al-Kaabi, Ali Talib, Salim al-Dabbagh, Layla al-Attar, Hashim al-Tawil, Amer Al Obaidi and Saleh al-Jumaie.
Rifat travelled to London in 1983 and lived there for about two years before moving to Boston, Massachusetts. During that period, we used to meet occasionally, and I once introduced him to the late printer, Hugh Stoneman, who created a set of prints based on photographs by his father, the politician Kamil Chadirji, and another with selections of his architectural works. At the time, Rifat was tasked with designing the building of the Council of Ministers in Baghdad, which was his second collaboration with Iraqi artists, and included both the calligrapher Muhammad al-Sakkar and the artist Mehdi Moutashar. He had previously collaborated with Jewad Selim on The Fourteenth of July Monument, designing the concrete panel that was the background for Selim’s sculptures (it was later called The Freedom Monument). Rifat and Hisham Munir may be the only Iraqi architects who collaborated with artists during their professional life; however, the difference between them was that Rifat’s objective was purely architectural, while Munir’s aim in producing the artworks was for decorative purposes, such as for the Government Guest House and the National Insurance Company building. The latter featured the sculptural work of Ismail Fattah on the exterior of the building, which disappeared during the first days of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One day in 2016, while I was waiting in my studio for Rifat’s brother Yaqthan, who was on a short visit to London with the late architect Wijdan Mahir, they called to tell me that Rifat wanted to join them. I could not believe that he would be able to, due to his physical condition then, but he had refuted all the reasons that would have prevented him from accompanying them, and he came to my studio after all. He was an intellectual with an astonishing and contemporary mind, and he was keen to know about the status of Iraqi art and my artwork. He was also curious about my computer literacy and how I use it in my work, especially in the field of printing. He seemed extremely satisfied with what he heard.
At the time, I was working on the production of the annual Rifat Chadirji Prize presented by Tamayouz Excellence Award. I therefore seized the opportunity to obtain a copy of his signature to be used on the box that contains the prize. For over two hours, we discussed the tremendous developments in the means of communication and scientific achievements, and their impact on the artistic experience worldwide.
On 10 April 2020, Rifat passed away after years of deteriorating health conditions, during which his wife, Balkis Sharara, made an exceptional effort to provide the quality of life that he deserved. There is no doubt that death is inevitable, but it is a tragedy that such a creative person was destined to die outside his country, Iraq.