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Wednesday, September 28, 2005  
Window to the world

Purwa Khandelwal browses through Iraqi painter Sabeeh Kalash’s art

WHEN one enters the world of Iraqi artist Dr Sabeeh Kalash, one is instantly struck by the vibrant hues of purple and blue in his paintings. “These colours depict the vibrancy of life and enthusiasm,”
he says.

Yet, quite ironically, his most beautiful painting tells us of the saddest thoughts. Out of his 27 paintings that are on display at the Omani Centre for Fine Arts in Muscat in a six-day exhibition that ends today, Weeping Mother is probably the one that attracts most critics and art enthusiasts.

“It is the despair and devastation of a mother that shrieks out of the painting,” says Dr Khalil Salman, an art critic, while observing the painting. And as it turns out, the painting not just reflects sadness, it is also built around political and social complexities.

“It’s a woman wailing over the dead body of her son. It is about Saddam Hussein’s regime, when children used to get kidnapped and killed. In this painting, the woman finds the body of her son after a long time. It is beyond recognition now, and she is crying over it,” says Kalash, who has been teaching history of art at the Sultan Qaboos University for four years now.

But in a subject as grim as this, Kalash’s optimism conspicuously finds its place. While the entire painting has a mélange of purple, green and black colours that contribute to the darkness of the theme, the artist has given light shades on the top left. “From darkness to light. After the dark period of Saddam’s regime, I hope for a bright future,” Kalash explains.

Kalash’s other painting that instantly draws attention is The Bridge Catastrophe, his comment on the recent Khadimiya mosque incident in Iraq where hundreds died in a stampede following a bomb scare even as many more threw themselves off a bridge into the strong currents of the Tigris in a desperate attempt to survive.

But for Kalash, variety is the spice of life. So, even though his paintings do comment on the political realities of the time, they do not shy away from the finer aspects of life.

Omani Glamour shows a long necklace worn by women of the Sultanate. “This necklace is symbolic of a woman and her beautiful heart on which it rests,” says Haydar, his son, who helped Kalash in setting up the exhibition. Similar aspects of feminine beauty, youth and mystique have also been depicted in The Henna Night, Omani Maiden and Omani Charm.

His use of Omani motifs such as frankincense burner, dagger, water, oil, palm trees and dates was not lost on anybody, and nor was his latest design of windows. “These are windows to the world,” Kalash says.

“He has given us an insight into the Arab world in general and Oman in particular. There is something for all of us to learn and understand the past and look forward to a better future from his paintings,” said Rehna Al Balushi.

Haydar adds that his father has introduced a new style of painting motifs inside blocks in most of his latest paintings. “Of course, these motifs have a meaning. They are again a commentary on the times. In these windows, you may find important dates from the history of Iraq or something as beautiful as a heart,” he says.

In one of these windows, you can notice the number ‘9’ - the day, Saddam’s regime fell. In another, you can notice ‘27’. Kalash blushes when you ask about it, but refuses to explain.

Kalash essentially turns out to be an artist of optimism. He talks about civilisation and the cycle of life (Tree of Faith), about good things in this world (Butterflies) and about evolution (The New Dawn). 

While he does philosophise on life, he does not hesitate to celebrate physical and material beauty of the world. Nor does he stray from its gruesome realities. And there lies the uniqueness of his art.

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