Addressing the Displacement from Iraq: Cathartic Existential Imagery by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

Instantly identifiable through basic, black-and-white style, the art of Sadik Kwaish Alfraji is an exploration of what he describes as “the problem of existence”. In drawings, paintings, video animations, art books, graphics and installations, the Netherlands-based Iraqi artist—among the most prominent in the diaspora—follows a shadowy, solitary protagonist who is rendered as a mere charcoal silhouette. This itself speaks volumes.

Life and colour, identity and substance have been drained out of him. And his helpless black void of a body often has its back bent, hands unfree, as though stuck to the sides or tied behind. We find the recurring figure in bleak, psychologically heavy environments—experiencing acutely the loss, fragmentation of the self and lapses in time that underline the state of exile.

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

Born in Baghdad in 1960, Alfraji saw a lively and open city as a boy. (We will find quite a few articles and videos around titled: “Picturing Iraq in a Bygone Era”, “8 Vivid Photos That Show What Iraq Looked Like Before It Was Destroyed by War”, “Welcome to Baghdad: How Iraq Used to Be in the 1950s”). Of Sadr or Al-Thawra, the district of Baghdad that he grew up in, but which, unfortunately, is now one of the poorest parts of the region, he says: “To live in this city means you live inside a novel. It is not a normal city; it is absolutely not a normal city. If you want to understand this city read Gabriel García Márquez. It is really full of magic and full of stories. As an artist I owe everything to this city; all my vision, all my thoughts.”

Things began to change by the late 70s. Saddam Hussein and his dictatorship formally came to power in 1979. The Iran-Iraq War, which would last eight years, began in 1980.

Alfraji obtained a diploma in Plastic Art and Painting from the Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, in 1982. As part of his studies, he undertook an internship at the educational TV channel in the animation department, where he was trained in graphics and illustration—skills that he would later bring to his art.

His charcoal silhouette figure was, to an extent, shaped by the raw emotions and instabilities of patients at a psychiatric hospital that he often visited. The etchings based on them were included in an art book titled Biography of a Head (1985). The drawings had captions like “he started thinking” and “he thought about leaving“. Alfraji could not exhibit them anywhere because clearly they talked about freedom, and under Hussein only art and culture that could serve as propaganda for the regime was allowed. 

From “Biography of a Head” © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji
From “Waiting for Godot” Series © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

In 1987, Alfraji further received a BA from the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He left for the Netherlands in the 1990s, where he gained another Diploma, in Graphic Design, from Constantijn Huygens in the city of Kampen. His subject matter has deepened and expanded over the years, and reflects the many influences that he absorbed at different points in his life.

In addition to the patients at the psychiatric hospital, the charcoal silhouette holds within its being elements from the rich heritage (Islamic and ancient) of the artist’s land. The profile view, in a way, resembles the serious expressions found in ancient Mesopotamian art. The blackness has a special connection to a holiday called Ashura, a universal day of mourning for Shi’a Muslims. Alfraji’s mother would dye clothes black and hang them up to dry.

As a student, Alfraji encountered the German Expressionists and the work of artists like Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokaschka and Emil Nolde. Existentialists writings of Nietzsche and Sartre also made their way into his work. Then there are authors like Franz Kafka and, more importantly, Samuel Beckett. Several of Alfraji’s works are named after the absurdist play Waiting for Godot (1953). Godot, the unknown character whom the two characters Vladimir and Estragon seek and seek, resonates intensely with the feeling of exile. It is a symbol of that which is wished for, but remains elusive or absent or unreachable.

Godot to Come Yesterday © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

An exhibition of the artist’s that is especially worth engaging with is “Driven by Storms (Ali’s Boat)” from 2015—containing painting, installation, drawing and video—inspired by Alfraji’s encounter with his 12-year-old nephew in 2009, when he had returned to Iraq around the time of his father’s death.

Alfraji writes: “The day I was leaving, my little nephew, Ali, handed me a sealed envelope, requesting me to open it only after leaving Iraq. It was a letter in which he had written his own and his brother’s names and the names of my children. Below that he had drawn a boat, with the words ‘I wish this boat takes me to you’. That simple yet complex message touched me deeply. I could see that the little boy had put all his dreams in this boat. It was his magic boat that could take him far away from the hell of Iraq.

“I understood his feelings because this was the same boat that I always dreamt about when I lived in Iraq and wanted to flee from all the terrible things happening around me….Each of us has our own shiny, beautiful boat that we hope will help us to flee from the problems that exist around us and within us. We know that it is impossible to escape these ‘problems of our existence’, but we still keep trying. Our life is like a storm that drives us, and we cannot stop.”

Alongside the depiction of boats, Alfraji shows us that life’s journey is fraught with obstacles, much akin to the board game of snakes and ladders, which is a returning visual trope in the work. Whether Ali or Alfraji will reach their destination is unknown, the imaginary worlds the artist creates are filled with dark fairytales and wishful, but perilous, journeys. The storm referred to in the exhibition title is as much the violence in Iraq that propels Ali to leave, as it is Alfraji’s tempestuous longing for the Baghdad of his childhood. 

Take Your Boat and Abandon Your Home from “Driven by Storms (Ali’s Boat)” © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji
Don’t Put All Your Dreams in One Boat from “Driven by Storms (Ali’s Boat)” © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji
Snakes and Ladders from “Driven by Storms (Ali’s Boat)” © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam recently displayed a series of works from the artist in which he traces a story of the displacement of himself and his family. Here, he explores and weaves together personal narratives, interlaced by a collective sense of solidarity with anyone who has experienced exodus. 

As the museum website states: “The River That Was in the South and Sing like the Southerners Do (both 2019–2020) depict the first chapter of a migratory journey, with Alfraji’s grandfather’s family having to leave their home near the Erfaya’a river in the Mesopotamian Marshes to flee the oppression of a feudal system and seek a decent life. The second chapter illustrates further repeated displacements of his father’s generation inside Iraq and the margins of Baghdad. Later, due to Saddam Hussein’s autocracy, the artist had to emigrate to the Netherlands, where begins the third chapter, which he refers to as “At the Edge of Amsterdam City.” The River Books (2019–2020) unveil personal notes that dialectically bind together the three chapters of the journey.”

From “The River That Was in the South” © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. Alfraji writes: “These are visions coming from a far, from a generation I haven’t seen and a life I haven’t lived, yet I grew up in the arms of its legacy…These works are an attempt to touch the visions of those early migrants and those of us, WE, who are still on the move, driven by our everlasting yearnings to visualize a heaven we shall forever stand on its edges.”

From “Sing like the Southerners Do” © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. This installation is accompanied by traditional Southern Iraqi mawāwīl (an Arabic music genre), sung by Salman Al-Mankoub, about life, farewell, ruins, love, death, and dreams; the drawings also include Alfraji’s handwritten transcription of some of the lyrics. 

From “The River Books” © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. The Arabic text is: “I am your grandson, far from your reed house. After years of death and isolation, my grandfather, I hear the whine of your soul and I hear your voice exhausted by fatigue, see your dream of a land you own, and a crop to be harvested for your children, and a day without fear…” The notebooks contain a semi-imaginary dialogue in which the artist converses with his own thoughts as well as the two older family generations on histories, part of which he hasn’t experienced firsthand. In this manner, Alfraji poetically narrates a multilayered story while placing together contradicting notions of melancholy, deprivation, and loss mingled with emotions of nostalgia, hope, and desire. As a group, the works deal with what’s beyond the surface image of migration and question the inevitable cross-cultural influences on cultural identity and intergenerational memory. 

The final note that the viewer of these works could meditate upon is simply this—the artist explaining: “I do not paint out of luxury, and do not seek beauty; I paint as an attempt to reason with the world and myself.”

Alfraji’s black figures are instruments of catharsis by which he makes sense of his own life. They hurry to no conclusions, they promise no answers. They lie suspended between here and there, confused and powerless. The thickness and gravity of whatever they are going through they offer it to us—bare and full. And that’s wherein all their appeal lies. We do not even know when exactly they transcend their geo-political particularity to represent the frailties and yearnings that are part of every single human being.

The artist is represented by Ayyam Gallery, Dubai. Venues where he has had solo shows include Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah (2017); Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp (2016); Galerie Tanit, Munich (2016); Beirut Exhibition Center, Beirut (2014); Stads Gallery, Amersfoort, Utrecht (2010); and Station Museum, Houston (2008). Venues where he has had group exhibitions include the Katzen Art Center, American University Museum, Washington (2017); Iraq Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale, Venice (2017); British Museum, London (2017, 2015); TRIO Biennial, Rio de Janeiro (2015); 56th Venice Biennale, Venice (2015); Abu Dhabi Festival, Abu Dhabi (2015); LACMA, Los Angeles (2015); Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2012); Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris (2012); Centro Cultural General San Martin, Buenos Aires (2012); and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha (2010).

Alfraji’s works are housed in private and public collections including those of the British Museum, London; National Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad; The Art Center, Baghdad; National Gallery of Fine Arts Amman; Shoman Foundation, Amman; Royal Association of Fine Arts, Amman; Novosibirsk State Art Museum, Russia; and Cluj-Napoca Art Museum, Romania; Los Angeles Country Museum; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Al Fraji was named Artist of the Year at the Esquire Middle East Awards in 2012. A monograph on the artist edited by Nat Mueller was published in 2015 (Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam).

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji lives and works in the city of Amersfoort.

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In Baghdad, Under the Freedom Monument © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji
On the Way © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

Sisyphus Goes on Demonstration © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

Elusive Beauty © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji
Imagined Features of My Grandfather’s Face Which I Have Never Seen © Sadik Kwaish Alfraji




FOCUS: Where I will bring to your attention a charity and a business operating in the artist’s place of origin or addressing their themes. These initiatives are not affiliated with the artist or their galleries. You could donate to, buy from or invest in them.

CHARITY—Iraqi Orphan Foundation (London, UK). They aim to have ongoing sponsorship for each orphan. There is always a waiting list and while they wait for sponsors to come forward, they assist children in other ways. They distribute items such as winter clothing, or school equipment, they also assist their families (usually a widow with children) with house repairs and essential goods. They reach children in seven major cities and surrounding areas: Baghdad, Babel, Karbala, Najaf, Kufa, Mussayab and Kut.

BUSINESS—Iraqi Tech Ventures (Dubai, UAE). They are passionate about diversifying Iraq’s economy away from oil into more sustainable sectors like technology. They have had experience across the Middle East and the US and are now keen on connecting potential investors to opportunities in Iraq.