Iraqi artist who pioneered calligraphy in modern Arabic art

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I was about 13 when I moved from New York, where I was born and raised, to Baghdad.

It was 1980 and my father, Ismat Kittani, was head of the International Organizations Department of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President of the United Nations General Assembly from 1981 to 1982.

Within a few months, I became fluent in the Iraqi dialect, and even though I was enrolled in the American System International School in Baghdad, everything about this move was a huge culture shock.

The Iran-Iraq War had just begun and with it came air raids, missiles falling in our neighborhood and the constant reverberation of shaking windows. In the midst of this turbulence there was a constant calm: Didi, my maternal grandmother.

However beautiful Didi and Babu’s home was, it was Didi’s studio inside that was breathtaking and where I had the most inspiring and formative experiences.

I visited my grandparents every day after school and always passed by the kitchen because Didi had prepared a delicious meal for me. My God, she knew how to cook!

Didi made the best dolma, mastering the art of stuffing peppers, tomatoes, onions and vine leaves – a talent she attributes to her fatherly Circassian side.

Babu, as I called my grandfather, and Didi had such a close relationship, and in the warmth of my grandparents’ home, I felt safe from the chaos outside.

Didi was the most loving, caring, and sweetest person I know, and I really wanted to be with her all the time.

As beautiful as Didi and Babu’s home is, it was Didi’s studio that was breathtaking and where I had the most inspiring and formative experiences. In there, we would draw together, or I would watch her paint and listen to story after story.

Didi always had old sayings for me and lots of words of wisdom to pass on, articulated so gently. I clung to every syllable.

After Babu’s death in 1988, sadly, much of Didi’s incredible art was looted. Some of them may have reappeared in the market and others may appear.

I remember how passionate she was about the Arabic letter and the fervor with which she insisted that each had its own character.

For Didi, the Arabic letter was a vehicle she used to process her thoughts. It ignited her imagination and her eyes lit up as she explained. The Arabic letter, she believed, could do anything.

Didi’s calligraphy was free, not linked to religion or politics, which meant that it had another dimension of interpretation and in itself opened up a plethora of perspectives.

I was amazed at how extremely focused and methodical she was in her artistic approach and the level of detail she applied. I watched his paintings endlessly (and still do), energized by the tranquility they gave me, but also by the endless possibilities I found. I saw, like Didi, that each letter has unlimited potential.

My relationship with Didi’s art began in my youth because I grew up with his work all over our homes and knew most had been done before I was born. My mother’s pride in her mother’s artwork was contagious. I was, and still am, so proud of Didi and her accomplishments.

Didi’s letters danced across canvases, invigorated by a rhythm she identified with each

Her life began in Aleppo, Syria in 1908, where she was born to a Circassian father and a Syrian mother. She grew up in Baghdad and attended secondary school in Beirut and Istanbul, later becoming the first woman to receive an Iraqi government scholarship to study abroad.

Didi moved to London and trained as an art teacher at Maria Gray Training College, London and, after graduating in 1933, returned to Baghdad where she worked as a teacher and headed the art department of the Teachers’ Training School for Women until 1942. .

In 1939 she married my grandfather, Yasin Umar, an Iraqi diplomat, and moved with him to Washington in 1942 and it was there that her fascination with the Arabic letter was ignited.

Didi came across a book, Arabic palaeographyby Nabia Abbot, an Iraqi-American Islamic scholar, papyrologist and paleographer, and began to see the endless possibilities of abstraction from the Arabic letter.

In 1949, she held her first exhibition at Georgetown University’s Peabody Library, followed by a bachelor’s degree in art education from George Washington University in 1952. That year, she exhibited 48 paintings as part of the Ibn Sina exhibition at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

Madiha Umar and her husband Yassin and daughter Hala in 1950s Washington DC.  Photo: Dara Kittani

These paintings marked the launch of the Arabic letter into the realm of modern Iraqi art. This is what sets Didi apart. She has been credited with freeing the Arabic letter from its typical association with the Quran and traditional calligraphy, allowing it many abstract possibilities.

Didi’s letters danced across canvases, invigorated by a rhythm she identified with each. She was also a pioneer with her scratch works – laminated blackboards that she scratched off with crayons.

Didi then pursued an MFA from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington in 1959 and returned to Baghdad in 1966, where she taught at the Academy of Fine Arts and joined the One Dimension group of the Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan Al Said.

It was a gathering that sought to merge Sufi tradition with contemporary art. She has organized several personal exhibitions and also participated in group exhibitions, for a time in the United States.

I know she was admired and loved by many, including the Iraqi government, and I’m sure it must have been difficult being a female artist in a very male-dominated sphere.

Maybe being a diplomat’s wife made it easier – I know Babu encouraged her and in many ways her art was a form of cultural diplomacy.

I took her to her last exhibition in 1994 — Forces of Change: Artists from the Arab World at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, and saw the twinkle in her eyes when people asked her about her work.

In 2000, when she was 92, Didi and my mother moved from New York to Amman, where she died five years later.

Didi’s legacy lives on. I’m so proud of him, I love him so much, I feel obligated to him and it inspires me. It’s the only link I have with her other than the photographs and it tells me that she’s still there, and my mother too.

More information is at www.madihaumar.com

Updated: 03 June 2022, 18:02

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