Blogs > Cliopatria > In Memoriam: Dr. Khalid Al-Qassab (1924-2004)

Sep 2, 2004 2:10 pm

In Memoriam: Dr. Khalid Al-Qassab (1924-2004)

On the fortieth day of mourning for the great Iraqi doctor and artist, Dr. Khalid Al-Qassab, his family and friends gathered together at the Orfali Center in Amman, Jordan to pay respects to his memory. Befittingly, Dr. Al-Qassab’s life was celebrated through a retrospective of his art; his watercolors and oil paintings were evocatively described as the slide show progressed, from the first tentative pastoral scenes to the brilliant colors of his last still life painting. Before the retrospective, Dr. Al-Qassab’s friends and colleagues in the medical profession had underlined his brilliance as an cancer surgeon; now was the time to celebrate his life as an artist. But both sides of his personality, the scientific and the artistic, were a vital part of the whole; indeed, for Dr. Al-Qassab that was how it should be. When asked what tied medicine to art, his answer was immediate. “They both benefit people”, he is reported to have said.

To understand Dr. Al-Qassab’s life work, and the many influences on his calling, one must read up on Iraqi art and never, never pass up the opportunity to see the fragments of Iraqi art – paintings, sculpture, ceramics – still left untouched in galleries in Iraq itself, and especially, in private homes the world over. The Iraqi art historian, Ms May Muzaffar, has left us with a vivid description of the Iraqi art scene from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. She emphasizes that from as early as the 1930’s, Iraqi artists were being sent abroad on government scholarships to learn from European masters. The first, and best known Iraqi artists of the period, Faiq Hassan (1914-92) and Jawad Selim (1921-61) blazed a path which was followed by several outstanding artists of their generation. After WWII, Hassan and Selim formed a group called La Societé Primitive, influenced by French Impressionism. Later on, the group came to be simply known as the Pioneers (al-ruwwad in Arabic). Among its fluctuating members was that ultimate Renaissance man, Dr. Khalid al-Qassab.

But what makes Iraqi art distinctively Iraqi is that, in the end, the education of Iraqi artists in Europe became yet another route to rediscovering their heritage. Europe became a distant mirror; the predisposition of Iraqi artists to reflect upon local themes gained ground as the decades wore on. As Ms Muzaffar puts it : “[Jawad Selim] was the first Iraqi artist to develop an Iraqi consciousness and therefore call for an equation between traditional heritage and modernity—recalling the artistic legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia and Islamic art while benefiting at the same time from Western art and artistic achievements” (Muzaffar in Inati, ed. Iraq: Its History, People and Politics, 2003). Mixing Islamic themes with Byzantine motifs, or reworking Assyrian bas-reliefs to produce monumental art, the Iraqi artist refocused his energies to create distinctive forms of painting or sculpture that his countrymen and women could learn from, be awed and impressed by, and ultimately, adapt to their own very specific reality. Dr. Khalid al-Qassab’s work reflects all those characteristics : it is inspired by the Iraqi earth and drenched with its colors.

Rest in peace, Aba Walid.

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