Remembering Mahood Ahmed: The Iraqi painter who captured both injustice and pure joy

Iraqi painter Mahood Ahmed died this month in a car crash in Amman, Jordan, at the age of 81. Ahmed was born in the city of Amarah in the Maysan province, in the south-east of Iraq. Renowned within his native country, he was a longtime professor and painter whose work had been influenced by a 20-year sojourn in Moscow during the time of the Soviet state. Ahmed, who died on April 21, left behind numerous paintings, scholarly articles and poems. 

He first studied painting at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, and in 1959 he won a scholarship to what was then the USSR. He lived in Moscow for two decades, earning his PhD at the Institute of Theoretical Studies in fine art. When he returned to Iraq in 1979, he and his wife, Wassma Al Agha, became part of the educational establishment, as he joined the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. 

Al Agha, who had a doctorate in art history, was also a painter. Their daughter, Ramia Ahmed, describes the pair painting together in the evening: her mother would stand on the right, her father on the left, and they would work in harmony. 

Ahmed remained in Iraq through the First Gulf War and the years of sanctions, continuing to paint, teach and publish. He participated in a number of exhibitions in Iraq and the region, as well as in Europe. But his daughter explains that conditions became difficult during the Second Gulf War. The family, as members of the intelligentsia, were targeted for kidnapping. According to Ramia, on one occasion, the road was blocked and armed fighters demanded that Ahmed let her get out of the car or they would shoot him. He refused, and the stand-off only ended when helicopters appeared above them in the sky, and the militia scattered. 

Faced with a worsening security situation, Ahmed and his family sought to move, though they were required to stay in the country due to a law mandating that professors had to continue working in Iraq. They transferred north to the Kurdish territory, where Ahmed became an inaugural member of the faculty of fine arts at the University of Salahuddin. Later, the family returned to the Iraqi capital and, in 2005, Ahmed was honoured as the oldest faculty member of Baghdad University. 

In 2010, the family left Iraq for the US, where they settled in Detroit. Ahmed’s paintings underlined the political and social injustices of the Middle East, as well as bucolic everyday scenes of joy. One painting, The Palestinians, a triptych from 1978 that is now in the collection of the State Museum of Oriental Art in Russia, shows four fighters in a reddish, setting sun; one, with an RPG on his shoulder, faces the viewer, another looks down, dejected. 

“He was not a political artist,” Ramia, who is also an artist, tells The National. “But he would think about the people. He felt sorry about the Palestinians, the war in Iraq, for the people there.” While in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, he painted work about the Halabja massacre in 1988, in which Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the Kurdish village, killing an estimated 5,000 people. 

Among his many published works were articles and research on Arab folklore, Iraqi art history, gnostic manuscripts and the 10th-century Caliph al Ma’mun’s excavations of the Egyptian pyramids. Ramia says that her father, though elderly, still thought of what he would accomplish. “He still had unfinished dreams,” she says. “He wanted to do more; he had the energy to do more. This is now my responsibility.” 

by Melissa Gronlund

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