Shakir Hassan Al Said's Theology of Line, or the Turn to Islamic Philosophy after the Ba'ath Coup of 1963

By Saleem Al-Bahloly
Submitted to Session P4900 (The Islamic and the Modern in the Twentieth Century Visual Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The development of practice of modern art in Iraq during the 1950s was shaped on the one hand by an emerging public sphere, where newspapers and parties were provided the basis for new kinds of political activity, and on the other the question of how a modern practice of art would relate to a discontinuous history of art going back to ancient Mesopotamia.

The conditions of art practice were abruptly transformed in 1963, when a coup by the Ba?ath Party, and the persecution of leftists that followed, brought about the collapse of the public sphere that had formed over the previous two decades. Art practice turned inward and came to be defined by a new set of concerns with method, technique and expression. That turn was first articulated by the artist Shakir Hassan Al Said in an artist statement published in Al-Jumhuriya in 1966, as a “struggle to arrive at the truth” that took the form of “a reconsideration of the artwork as a material available for contemplation and revelation of truth in all its dimensions.”

This paper explores the ways in which Shakir Hassan Al Said turned to Islamic philosophy in order to develop a new critical theory of the artwork. In particular it focuses on a set of writings that Al Said published in the nineteen-sixties that sought to re-conceptualize the line in the artwork in terms of the medieval philosophy of Illuminationism [?Ishr?q?ya]. The paper situates this turn to Islamic philosophy for concepts against the background of the liberalism of the nineteen-fifties, when Al Said had been a central figure in the grounding of the modern artwork in the public sphere.