Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

West Asia: Ancient Legends, Modern Idioms

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Artists of western Asia are heirs to the first civilizations known to man and their landscape is rich with examples of art, from the first human-form statues to Islamic and modern art. In the twentieth century, artists borrowed elements from their respective ancient patrimonies in an effort to create a national and regional cultural identity. Several artists' groups formed between the 1930s and '60s adopted European artistic modes of expression to produce works inspired by their heritage and by a rapidly disappearing landscape victim to urban migration and industrialization. This trend was most evident in Iraq, Jordan, and, to a limited extent, Israel and the Arabian Peninsula. Each country had its unique stages of development characterizing its artistic production, forging a synthesis of ancient western Asian cultures and Western styles. This unique synthesis is represented in the work of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in Iraq, and the Jewish Bezalel school of the early 1920s in Jerusalem. Jewish artists, traumatized by the Holocaust, rejected their European roots and turned to "Canaanite" myths and symbols in their quest for a national Hebrew identity. At the dawn of the twentieth century, life in many villages of western Asia had much in common with ancient life. Intrigued by this reflection of their heritage, artists depicted idyllic scenes of village life in areas such as the marshes of southern Iraq, a region ravaged in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein's regime drained the wetlands and relocated the inhabitants.

After years of conflict and several wars, the landscape itself became a symbol for self-determination, the redefinition of identity, and resistance to occupation.


Cited Works of Art or Images (7)

  • Mustafa al Hallaj, Self-Portrait as God, The Devil and Man
  • Suha Shoman, Legend of Petra II
  • Fateh Al  Moudarres: Refugees
  • Jewad Selim, Monument of Freedom
  • Kareem Rissan, Iraqi Legend
  • Suad Al-Attar, Gilgamesh and Enkido
  • Ziad Dalloul, Kitab al-Mundun: Petra


In the last thirty years of the century, artists continued to borrow from their past but became more concerned with their immediate reality, drawing on ancient symbolism and mythology to portray contemporary political and social concerns. After years of conflict and several wars, the landscape itself became a symbol for self-determination, the redefinition of identity, and resistance to occupation (Fateh Moudarres, Refugees). Artists from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Cyprus, as well as Israeli and Palestinian artists, have produced a large body of works dealing with contemporary issues of contested ancestral lands using photography, new media technology, sculptural installation, and digital processes (Michal Rovner, Border #8).

Art Inspired by the Ancient Landscape
The influence of ancient Sumerian and Assyrian art is commonly seen in public monuments in Iraq (Jawad Salim, Monument to Freedom). The colossal Babylonian human figure is a common theme in Iraqi sculpture (Ismail Fattah, Man and Mask). The landscape of the ancient city of Petra has inspired more twentieth-century Arab artists than any other ancient site, bringing together poets and visual artists in collaborative projects dedicated to its enduring beauty (Ziad Dalloul, Kitab al-Mudun: Petra). One Jordanian artist devoted over two decades of study and exploration to this ancient landscape (Suha Shoman, Legend of Petra II).

Works Inspired by Myth and Folktale
Western Asia is the source of many myths and legends, and each country has its favorites, stories that have become integral to the literary culture of each nation. For example, the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (Suad al-Attar, Gilgamesh and Enkido) and Phoenician legends have been recontextualized into contemporary experiences allowing for associations between past, present, and future. Folktales passed down from one generation to the next became popular, especially among self-taught artists, as source material. Artists capitalized on audience familiarity with the characters and their attributes, introducing political and social commentaries in indirect and sometimes abstract presentations.

Signs and Symbols
Rooted in ancient beliefs, signs and symbols are integral elements of all art forms of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Israelites, Hittites, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, and other ancient civilizations of western Asia. Many of these signs and symbols constituted a rational representational vocabulary; they also had magical and supernatural attributes. Commonly found on vernacular objects such as decorative vessels, amulets, wall murals, crafts, carpets, textiles, and furniture, ancient signs and symbols have been appropriated by modern and contemporary artists of the region. In the 1920s, for instance, Israeli artists of the first generation of European immigrants to Palestine made reference to ancient religious symbols as a way of creating an authentic Jewish art. Signs have also been used by artists in works that explore mystical symbolism and the subconscious, appearing either as part of the composition (Kareem Rissan, Iraqi Legend) or as the primary focus of the work (Mustafa al-Hallaj, Self-Portrait as God, the Devil, and Man).

Salwa Mikdadi
Independent Curator

Self-Portrait as God, the Devil, and Man (detail), 2000
Mustafa al-Hallaj (Palestinian, 1938–2002)
Masonite-cut print; 112 x 300 in. (eight rows, each 14 x 300 in.)
Collection of Ibtisam H. Zubaidy
Image courtesy of Artcar Museum

Mustafa al-Hallaj studied art in Egypt and lived in Beirut, Lebanon, and Damascus. An important figure in contemporary Palestinian art, Hallaj helped to define fan al-muqawama (the art of resistance). Self-Portrait as God, the Devil, and Man was inspired by ancient Canaanite legends, folk tales, and Palestinian cultural icons. The sequence of pictorial narratives depicts a fable casting the self as man, god, and devil. This ongoing saga made in sections, each measuring 30 x 80 centimeters, had reached 114 meters at the time of his death. Arranged horizontally, the sections together comprise an epic using symbols from ancient mythology—bulls, birds, fish, and animal hybrids. Set within fantastic landscapes derived from ancient and modern Palestinian life, this massive print represents scenes from Al-Nakba (the Catastrophe) of 1948 and other historical events from the history of the Palestinian people, from the eleventh century B.C. to the present. Hallaj died while trying to save the orig Legend of Petra II, 1988
Suha Shoman (Palestinian, born 1944)
Oil on canvas; 78 x 58 1/2 in. (200 x 150 cm)
The Khalid Shoman Private Collection

For twenty years, the ancient Nabataean city of Petra in southern Jordan has been Suha Shoman's source of inspiration. Her studio overlooks the mountain ridges of the ancient city. Her paintings are a meditation on time, on the synchronization of life and death embedded in the Nabataean belief system, on the ephemeral and eternal as embodied by the rocks of Petra. The Legend of Petra is one in a series of paintings reflecting the light in the narrow passage of the Siq. Strong, twisted shapes burst onto large canvases, in vertical compositions, images of the radiant walls of the Nabataean city. The magnified rocks are rendered in burnt orange, volcanic black, gleaming yellow, and dark twilight blue. Shoman's skillful use of color evokes the timeless beauty of Petra, telling the story of the ancient civilizations of her homeland, the richness and life-giving memory that flows through the veins of history.

Refugees, 1986
Fateh Moudarres (Syrian, 1922–1999)
Oil on canvas; 47 1/4 x 70 7/8 in. (120 x 180 cm)
Collection Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Fateh Moudarres was a leading figure in contemporary Syrian art. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome and in Paris at a time when Abstract Expressionism was exploding throughout Europe. Moudarres developed a personalized language as an expressionist with a special interest in dramatic color and form. His artistic language became a vehicle that simultaneously conveyed his most intimate personal impressions and the collective memory of his people.

Drawing on the deeply rooted mythology of the Near East, this work depicts a group of refugees displaced by war. Inspired by ancient Canaanite legends such as the Baal epic, Refugees evokes the continuum of memory and tradition in the region and links ancient history and symbols with the volatile political events of modern times. Solemn figures adorned in ancient headdress, typical of Moudarres' work, portray a sense of loss, exile, and oppression. A bull's head is held upright to symbolize dignity and defiance, and contrasting colors expre Nasb al-Hurriya (Monument to Freedom), 1959–61
Jawad Salim (Iraqi, 1920–1961)
Bronze; 164 ft. x 26 ft. 3 in. (50 x 8 m)
Collection of the artist

Jawad Salim grew up in a family of gifted painters. In 1938–39, he studied sculpture in Paris and Rome. In 1945, he studied painting at the Slade School of Art in London. He was influenced by the work of Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso. Upon his return to Baghdad, he taught sculptor at the Institute of Fine Arts. As a co-founder of the Baghdad Modern Art Group, Salim espoused the creation of a unique national artistic identity through the melding of modern concepts with Islamic and Iraqi artistic traditions, from ancient Assyrian miniatures to the work of the thirteenth-century cAbbasid painter al-Wasiti. Deeply rooted in the richness of Mesopotamia, Islamic art, and local folklore, Salim's work influenced generations of Iraqi artists.

The Monument to Freedom represents the culmination of Salim's efforts to create a synthesis of indigenous, historical forms and modern international trends, and is considered a landmark in modern Arab sculpture. Commissioned by the new Iraqi gove Iraqi Legend, 1992
Kareem Rissan (Iraqi, born 1960)
Mixed media on board; 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. (80 x 80 cm)
The Khalid Shoman Private Collection

Kareem Rissan belongs to a generation of Iraqi artists who managed to maintain their career in spite of constant conflict: the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, economic sanctions, the second Gulf War and its aftermath. These experiences led Rissan to apply himself assiduously to the task of finding a graphic language in which to express the spirit of past Mesopotamian civilizations that have enriched human life with their values. He bases his work on the legends and epics of ancient Iraq, painting the symbols and signs of Sumerian cuneiform into a contemporary aesthetic. Through his painting, Rissan attains a universal language grounded in his unique local identity. His diversity of expressive form and intense symbolic content allow his art to become both commentary and witness, exuding confidence and hope.

Gilgamesh and Enkido, 2001
Suad al-Attar (Iraqi, born 1942)
Oil on canvas; 19 1/2 x 29 1/8 in. (50 x 74 cm)
Collection of Suad al-Attar
© Suad al-Attar

Born in Iraq, Suad al-Attar studied art in Baghdad, San Francisco, and London. She was the first Iraqi woman artist to have a solo exhibition in Baghdad, in 1964. Attar's work is deeply embedded in the layered, historical traditions of her homeland, and yet she is unique in her ability to create and reinvent imagery inspired by Arabic literature, ancient Sumerian mythological texts, and her own representational search for symbolism and dreams. Gilgamesh and Enkido is based on a Sumerian legend. Gilgamesh, the hero-king of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, is depicted emerging from a dark, cavernous background. He has the body of an animal and a highly emotive and luminous feminine face, suggesting the artist's desire to create a powerful female image and invent a new role for women in an otherwise male-dominated legend. The animal represents the winged bull of Assyria with its strong and upright legs. Gilgamesh is flanked by his foe turned friend and companion Enkido, whose presence in the painting Kitab al-Mudun: Petra, 1999
Ziad Dalloul (Syrian, born 1953); poetry by Adonis (Syrian, born 1930)
Etching, mixed media on zinc; 23 5/8 x 15 3/4 in. (60 x 40 cm)
Collection of the artist
© Ziad Dalloul

Ziad Dalloul studied at the College of Fine Arts in Damascus and received a diploma from the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Dalloul is a painter who also engraves, prints, and draws. He merges disciplines and ideas allowing simple forms and complex emotions to come alive on paper. Dalloul uses traditional materials, such as ink, sepia, and handmade paper. His subjects range from domestic quotidian objects, such as a table or chair, to the breadth of nature, such a tree and the sea. He transforms two worlds, Orient and Occident, into a landscape of colors derived from nature and etched by memory. Dalloul's Kitab al-Mudun: Petra is a bilingual Arabic-French book of poems by the Syrian poet Adonis. The book features eighteen engravings by Dalloul that correspond to Adonis' poems about cities—from Beirut, Paris, and Marrakesh to New York, Petra, and Damascus.