His paintings show gruesome scenes of men being slaughtered and women raped; of fighters choosing and buying women that are undressed in front of them. Yezidi painter Ammar Salim, 31, is working on a project to tell the world what ISIS has done to his people.
In a series of nine canvasses, he paints a realistic picture of the tragedy that befell the Yezidi minority in Iraqi Kurdistan at the hands of ISIS in a style reminiscent of some European painters of the Middle Ages, who also packed their paintings with characters and scenes.
“I want to connect all that happened, to explain about the Yezidi genocide,” he said, walking from one painting to another in the small motel room in the Kurdish city of Duhok that is now his studio.
His life as an artist in the predominantly Yezidi town of Bashiqa changed abruptly after ISIS took over Iraq’s second city Mosul and so-called disputed areas in the vicinity that were both claimed by the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurds.
When Bashiqa fell in August 2014, Salim had to leave his studio and his home behind. Lately, he has been producing huge images of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters from silicone and paper.
He showed pictures of an over four meter-tall costume, made in the image of a famous Kurdish singer. It was work he did because it earned well, he admitted. He had made paintings before, but left that kind of art in disappointment.
“In this country nobody cares for paintings. You can open a gallery, but people do not come,” Salim said. He does not know what has happened since in Bashiqa to his property and his art. But he guesses they were looted or destroyed, recounting that ISIS fighters in Bashiqa also destroyed its ancient Yezidi shrines.
In Duhok he found a job in teaching art. There, talking to friends who managed to escape after coming face to face with ISIS and reading about the tragedy in the media, Salim decided to put all these stories into paint.
One of his paintings shows ISIS fighters killing men and chasing and raping women on Mount Shingal, as happened on August 3, 2014 when people tried to flee from the fighters. Interestingly enough, the stories up till now mention that men and women were separated and the men then killed.
Not, as Salim paints, that the women were violated on the spot—and not only days later after they were sold, as escaped Yezidi women have testified. Although he admits that he used his imagination, he claims to have kept near to what he was told.
“I painted what people who escaped from the mountain told me. How ISIS came, captured the people and some fought with them. Many of the characters are real. This is the reality of what happened,” he said.
Another canvas shows a tableau of women in black being brought into Mosul. At what Salim claims is a mosque, these Yezidi women are shown to men and sold. Some of the ISIS-fighters resemble images known from pictures in the media.
This painting caught most of the attention, he said. “People look at it and say they feel sad, because we are in 2015 and this does not look like it at all.” In other painting he resorts to symbolism, if modesty or technical reasons make it impossible to paint reality: A ring for lost virginity, withered trees for the changed and lost lives of Yezidi women.
For his latest painting, Yezidis are not the subject. Instead it is the massacre ISIS conducted against Shiite soldiers of the Iraq army near Tikrit in August 2014. About 1,700 of them were taken from the Speicher military base and executed at a number of locations.
Ammar Salim situates the murders on his canvas at the palace of former dictator Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, showing how soldiers were killed and their bodies thrown into the Tigris River, their blood coloring the water.
“All these paintings show what Daesh did in Iraq,” he explained, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“By painting the Speicher massacre, I get it back into the attention. Whilst people and government try to forget it, I want to keep it in the public memory.” One more incomplete painting remains in the series, he said, refusing to go into details.
After it is done he wants to exhibit them, inside Iraq, but mainly outside. For that reason, he has not thought of selling any of the paintings.
“I had a number of offers, but I do not want to sell. I want to take the message over the world, to show what happened to us Iraqis. I am not looking for the money, but to tell the story.”
By Judit Neurink