Istilham: Jewad Selim’s Negotiation of Continuity in Art

By Nada M. Shabout
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;
Jewad Selim (1919-1961), Iraq’s leading modern artist and the co-founder of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, invoked the notion of Istilham al-turath (seeking inspiration from tradition through renegotiation) to negotiate modernism in Iraqi art. Istilham became an important nucleus for modern Iraqi art on various levels.

For Selim, it was a necessary aesthetic to forge continuity in Iraqi art by engaging with elements from Iraq’s different history chapters. Most importantly, Selim’s alternative mode of representation that, nevertheless, underlines presentation as was understood by Islamic art and its relationship to reality, registers his response to the crisis of representation cause by modernism. Negotiating the Islamic element in relationship to modernism and with reference to the Mesopotamian heritage allowed Selim to introduce modern iconic shapes, like his hilaliyat, to represent the city of Baghdad and its inhabitants in the modern period. Baghdad’s perceived and constructed contemporary popular culture, with its preservation of tradition and folklore, was his main emphasis. Selim negotiated a local style that drew on Iraqi folklore such as ceramic animals and patterns in rugs, that were equally contemporary.

Through abstraction and a non-linear approach to repetition, Selim implemented an important aspect of Islamic aesthetics, based on interaction and juxtaposition of diverse units. This paper examines the notion of istilham al-turath in the work of Jewad Selim as an aesthetic that utilizes the decorative as the means to negotiate modernism.