“Realism and Funerary Processions in Mahmoud Sabri’s Work,” by Suheyla Takesh




With a growing scholarly interest in alternative and comparative modernities, an increasing number of international exhibitions in recent years have centered on twentieth-century art from North Africa and West Asia. Yet, the work of Iraqi-born painter Mahmoud Sabri (1927-2012) has seldom appeared in retrospective group exhibitions or studies of modern Arab art. His paintings only began to crop up in auction house sales and public collections after his passing in 2012, with the exception of an earlier sale made by Meem Gallery to Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, in 2011. Sabri’s decision to attend art school abroad partly contributed to his obscurity. He departed Iraq for Moscow in 1960, never to live in his country of birth again, thus forfeiting a direct connection with its dynamic and rapidly developing artistic landscape.1 Sabri’s self-imposed exile and his work’s resulting lack of critical attention contrast starkly with his community involvement during the 1950s, when he was an active contributor to Baghdad’s modern art scene, a socially driven artist, and an opinionated, politically engaged figure.

The 1950s, often called a golden age of Iraqi culture, saw a significant upswing in cultural projects and artistic innovation. It was a period of “raised political and social consciousness,” when national movements were on the rise in the Arab world, and there was a palpable opposition to Western political and economic involvement.2 Some Arab states had already gained independence from colonial powers, while others were still striving for self-determination, but all were in the process of redefining their identities. In the arts, this quest manifested itself in a search for authentic methods of expression that were at once modern and representative of local cultures, histories, and environments. Faced with rapid modernization, dramatic shifts in the region’s political landscape, and swiftly changing lifestyles, artists actively engaged in experiments aimed at forging novel modes of expression that were both locally rooted and internationally relevant.

A number of art groups were established in Iraq at this time, including the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, led by artists Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said, and Ar-ruwwād [The Pioneers], founded by artist and educator Faiq Hassan in 1950.3 The former collective released a manifesto in 1951, which describes the twofold requirements of forging a “national personality in the arts” as being “aware of the current styles” and having an “awareness of local character.”4 Taking this mantra to heart, the group members conducted experiments with form and composition, attempting to bridge local histories with international modernism and their predominantly Western training. Jewad Selim, who had worked at the Directorate of Antiquities in Baghdad between 1940 and 1945, championed a movement called istilham al-turath [seeking inspiration from tradition]. He promoted Iraq’s material heritage as a wellspring of artistic ideas and sought to create an authentically Iraqi visual language that incorporated elements from the past.5

Mahmoud Sabri belonged to the latter group—The Pioneers—which, unlike other local collectives, did not publish a manifesto. They did, however, share a guiding principle, which was to take art outside the studio and into the streets, painting “directly from the surrounding environment.”6 Its members, including Sabri, often visited Iraq’s rural areas and painted scenes of everyday village life. They, too, aspired to create a modern, national art in Iraq, and Sabri even exhibited alongside the Baghdad Group for Modern Art in 1951.7 Yet, he adopted a distinct approach towards defining and representing an Iraqi identity. Unlike Selim, for instance, Sabri’s engagement with heritage focused less on experiments with form and composition, and more on content and a reinterpretation of quotidian life and local customs. I argue that in Sabri’s work from the 1950s, particularly his Jnazet al-Shaheed [Funeral of the Martyr] series, he employed elements of Iraq’s vernacular practices and religious traditions, including those of ‘Ashura processions and related performative acts, in order to create imagery that resonated with Iraq’s general public. The notion of martyrdom in particular, due to its loaded connotations in Iraqi society, became central to his work at this time. Using the language of Realism, Sabri imbued the content of his work with a profoundly Iraqi character and looked at the past through the lens of a shared, lived present. His primary concern in the 1950s was to represent the injustice and socio-economic inequality in Iraqi society, so he turned to familiar imagery and symbolism that he believed capable of stirring the viewer. The differences between his approach and that of the members of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art thus reflect Sabri’s overriding political commitment, which superseded his interest in formal experiments.

Published material on Sabri’s practice from the 1950s and 1960s is largely limited to exhibition reviews, occasional references to his work in Soviet art journals and survey books on Iraqi art, and articles that he authored himself.8 In the 1950s, Sabri wrote for numerous publications on art and politics, and his work attracted the critical attention of Shakir Hassan Al Said and other prominent figures in Iraq.9 For instance, Jaleel Kamaluddeen’s review of The Pioneers’s 1958 exhibition for the journal Al-Adab praises the group’s Realist approach to painting and gives Mahmoud Sabri the spotlight, dedicating nearly half of the article to a discussion of his work. Kamaluddeen commends him as a skilled muralist whose work is worthy of Iraq’s National Museum and includes an image of Sabri’s 1957 painting Massacre in Algeria, which he painted in response to the bloodshed of the Algerian War of Independence, and which garnered much recognition in its time (Fig. 1).10 Journalist and critic Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s 1961 essay “Art in Iraq Today” also mentions Sabri’s work, noting that he sought to create an “Iraqi art” by addressing social and political injustices in Iraq and representing local scenes and everyday life.11


Fig. 1. Nadhum Ramzi, Mahmoud Sabri in his studio in Baghdad in 1957, in front of his painting “Massacre in Algeria,” 1957, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of Mohamed Sabri, the late artist’s son.


In the early 2010s, Sabri’s work began to garner international attention again, thanks to the abovementioned acquisition of his work by Mathaf, as well as a posthumous retrospective exhibition in La Galleria Pall Mall, London, in 2013, co-organized by Yasmin Sabri, the artist’s daughter, and Satta Hashem, an Iraqi artist based in the United Kingdom.12 Following the retrospective, Christie’s began auctioning Sabri’s work in their Dubai and London sales, and the accompanying catalogues often contain short essays about particular paintings by him.13 Other sources of information on his work include several video interviews with the artist, most of which were produced by Iraqi filmmaker Bahjat Sabri Bedan and released between 1985 and 2008, and a monographic volume edited by Dr. Hamdi Touqmachi—a close friend of Mahmoud Sabri’s—that was published in 2013.14

This paper seeks to shed light on the political circumstances that underpinned Sabri’s artistic work in the 1950s and early 1960s, and offers a novel reading of the multilayered motivations behind his Funeral of the Martyr series, produced between 1951 and 1962. In contrast to the brief discussions of his work in exhibition and auction catalogues and Touqmachi’s monograph, which position him as a revolutionary artist and a secular Communist and leave unaddressed the influence of Iraq’s vernacular customs on his practice, I explore the role of tradition in Sabri’s politically inspired canvases. Authors frequently link Sabri’s later paintings to Christian imagery—especially Eastern Orthodox icons portraying the lamentation of Christ—but his work from the 1950s has not been situated against the backdrop of Iraq’s religious traditions, which were also very much part of the country’s secular cultural fabric, or the historical significance of martyrdom in Iraq. This paper analyzes Sabir’s Funeral of the Martyr series and early embrace of Realism, suggesting that, like Communist artists elsewhere, Sabri saw painting as a tool for “national awakening.”15 He therefore opted for a popular art, one which was accessible, drew from Iraqi culture, and sought to cultivate a national consciousness.



Sabri’s Early Life and Communist Beginnings


“My first social engagement, one could say, was in the year 1944. With a group of highschool

boys, we went to the Minister of Education in Baghdad, and asked him if he could give us the

school building over the summer vacation, so we could turn it into a place of combatting

illiteracy in the community. And a large number of people joined us, I remember a few names, for

example, Muhammad Salih Al-Aballi, Hafez Touqmachi, Youssef al-Ani, Adeeb George, Kamel Mohammad

Ali….”16­ —Mahmoud Sabri


In a 2008 interview conducted in Prague, Mahmoud Sabri, aged 81, recalled his 17-year-old self engaging in community work in his native Baghdad. Growing up in a middle-class household, he began to exhibit an acute proclivity for justice and a sensitivity towards the condition of the underprivileged and marginalized very early on. He volunteered his time launching social initiatives, and, as a teenager, grew increasingly interested in Socialist and Communist ideologies. Dozens of blue-collar workers attended the summer school for illiterate adults that Sabri organized with a group of friends in 1944. It served not only as a venue for learning how to read and write, but also as a space for lectures and discussions on such issues as freedom, democracy, independence, and the rights of workers and women.17

As an ideology, Communism resonated with Sabri’s heartfelt concern for fairness and equality for all, and his yearning for a more even distribution of wealth and higher standards of living for the society’s most disadvantaged. During World War II, he and many of his Arab peers viewed the Soviet Union as the leading force in countering Fascism and its disciminatory tactics in Europe.18 After the war ended in a triumph for the Allies in 1945—the year of Sabri’s high school graduation—he became an official member of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and an activist in the Party’s various offshoots in Baghdad.19 This trajectory was not uncommon for young men in Baghdad at this time. In fact, it was during the 1940s that the Communist Party gained significant political power in Iraq under the leadership of its charismatic first secretary Yusuf Salman Yusuf, also known as Comrade Fahd. Cheap editions of Communist literature were readily available in the markets, and as World War II drew to a close, a string of Soviet victories contributed to the ideology’s increased popularity among students and the working class.20

Following Sabri’s graduation from high school, he received a government scholarship to study in Egypt. The following year, however, he transferred to Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, where he connected and engaged with left-wing activists while pursuing painting classes in the evenings.21 It was there, Sabri says, that he was first exposed to the work of world-class painters and began painting with oil colors. In 1949, he participated in the first art exhibition held at the Iraqi Embassy in London. There, he made his debut not only as a socially and politically driven artist, but also as a dedicated Communist, presenting a painting of the ongoing Chinese Communist Revolution at the group show.22 It was on this occasion that Sabri first came into contact with other young Iraqi artists in the United Kingdom, who would later go on to become leading figures in the field of modern art in Baghdad and contributors to a vibrant, experimental art scene. This cohort included Jewad Selim, Atta Sabri, Hafidh Droubi, Khaled Al-Bassam, and Fahrelnissa Zeid, among others.23

Sabri returned to Iraq in 1949, roughly a year after the popular uprising known as al-Wathba had erupted on the streets of Baghdad. The mass urban unrest (a three-day strike and numerous demonstrations) broke out in January 1948 to protest the signing of the Portsmouth Treaty between Iraq and the British government.24 The Iraqi people saw this agreement merely as a resumption of the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, which had given the British control of Iraq’s foreign political and military affairs.25 While the uprising had been orchestrated by members of several opposition groups, including Iraqi nationalists and pan-Arabists, the ICP—one of the largest grassroots organizations in the country—led the coordination of protests and proved instrumental in mobilizing large numbers of workers and students. The uprising encountered opposition from the Iraqi police, who shot and killed several hundred protesters from rooftops.26 The ICP’s involvement in staging al-Wathba placed it in a precarious position vis-à-vis the increasingly unpopular monarchy, which blamed the ICP for the civil unrest.27 The defeat of Iraqi (and other Arab) troops in Palestine later that year, which further compromised the Iraqi government’s prestige, only exacerbated the ICP’s position. In December 1948, Prime Minister Nuri al-Said ordered hundreds of Communists to be arrested and executed, including the secretary of the Party, Ysusf Salman Yusuf, who was hanged in February 1949. As a result, the ICP went “deep underground” for nearly a decade, and worked in secret to advance an anti-monarchical, revolutionary agenda.28


Fig. 2. Mahmoud Sabri, Peasant Family, 1958, oil on canvas, 35 x 48 in. (90 x 121 cm), Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar. Image courtesy of Meem Gallery, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Sabri returned to Iraq just in time to witness this backlash against the ICP and the incarceration and execution of many of its members. The tragic events unfolding in Iraq before his eyes found expression in his painting. Moral and political considerations took precedence over formal and aesthetic ones in Sabri’s art-making during this period, dictating his choice of subject, composition, and embrace of Realism. As a life-long political activist, a spokesperson for justice, and a genuine believer in Communism, he resolved to use his art to serve socially oriented goals, fundamentally rejecting the concept of “art for art’s sake” during this period.29 For several years, he concentrated his efforts on addressing the plight of Iraq’s poor and dispossessed, reflecting the country’s ongoing civil strife and political unrest. His figures from this period are slender, almost underweight, with somber, stern faces, as can be seen in his 1955 pencil and charcoal drawing and 1958 oil painting, each entitled Peasant Family (Figs. 2 and 3). They both depict village folk with solemn expressions, either looking directly at the viewer or staring vacantly into space. Their unassuming postures and modest attires indicate a humble lifestyle driven by strenuous manual labor. Although these individuals represent the sliver of society most closely associated with agriculture, there are no references to fertility or harvest in Sabri’s images. Instead, he offers a downhearted depiction of their scanty circumstances and their daily struggle for resources. In the pencil and charcoal drawing, one of the men holds a shovel, indicating that he tills the soil for a living. The tool also serves a symbolic function here, representing a region-specific stand-in for the Communist hammer and sickle. Even when appearing in groups, figures look meager and estranged from one another, reflecting both the struggle for survival in impoverished villages and the alienation experienced by migrant rural workers in the country’s urban centers. In his 1950s work The Parsnip Seller, for instance, Sabri depicts two withdrawn city-dwellers, likely on their way to work, buying a simple meal from a street vendor at dawn (Fig. 4). Their expressions are downcast and indifferent, making them appear emotionally detatched both from reality and from each other. Painted in the years preceeding the 1958 revolution, the work embodies the general spirit of futility and hopelessness experienced by the working class at this time.


Fig. 3. Mahmoud Sabri, Peasant Family, 1958, oil on canvas, 35 x 48 in. (90 x 121 cm), Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar. Image courtesy of Meem Gallery, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


This period of Iraqi history was marked by rapid modernization, aided by wealth from oil industry revenues, and spurred by the country’s desire to establish itself as a progressive young nation on the world arena. The government funded the construction and development of urban infrastructure in major cities like Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, with Western consultants and architects hired to help design large-scale projects. The country’s increasingly unpopular leadership, in an attempt to reestablish political stability, appointed the Iraq Development Board to supervise the construction of “dams, irrigation and drainage systems, bridges, roads, factories, power plants, housing, schools, hospitals, and public buildings.”30 This initiative drove countless rural workers into urban centers in search of jobs.


Fig. 4. Mahmoud Sabri, The Parsnip Seller, 1950s, oil on canvas, 35 x 28 in. (90 x 72 cm), Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

Many ended up in overpopulated slums that were infested with diseases. The situation for the working masses in rural areas was not much better. An outdated feudal system of land ownership still dominated agricultural production in the early 1950s. Peasants lacked tenure over the fields they tilled and were often exploited.31 These circumstances served as the basis for recurring peasant uprisings. Sabri, along with a number of other Iraqi artists and intellectuals practicing in Baghdad at this time, showed deep concern for the predicaments of these underpaid workers. He responded by producing art and text condemning the ill-treatment of laborers by the country’s ruling elite.

Alongside poverty and destitution, the subject of death caused by political oppression soon began to dominate Sabri’s work, triggered not only by targeted killings of members of the ICP, but also by other devastating political events across the region. His social and political drive continued to influence his work as a painter well into the late 1960s. During this period—aligning himself with the vision of Socialist artists internationally—he favored Realism as the style best-suited to both representing the lived experiences of Iraqi workers and highlighting urgent social issues.




Realism in the Work of Mahmoud Sabri


…a good Communist is first of all a Communist, and only secondarily a technician, artist, and so on….All knowledge and skills are tools placed in the service of the class struggle.”32 —Rote Gruppe [Red Group], Germany

Sabri was well-versed in Marxist writings on art and culture, particularly texts authored by twentieth-century European and American writers on the social and revolutionary role of art, often quoting them in his own work.33 He demonstrated a clear preference for Realism in the 1950s and early 1960s, a mode of representation he considered accessible to a wide audience and adept at bringing political matters to the public’s attention. Realism is defined in Marxist writing not only as a technique rooted in the mastery of traditional academic skills of painting, but also as a strategy for cultivating the mindfulness of its viewers, raising their awareness of prevailing socio-economic disparity and planting seeds of a revolutionary spirit necessary for the commencement of a class struggle. In other words, it was an artistic style framed not merely as a “theory of formal naturalism” or an effort to express the “actual conditions of life,” but as a movement geared towards promoting revolutionary activity.34 It was an art whose immediate goal was serving the public, not only by representing the circumstances of their existence, but also by catalyzing the transformation of these circumstances. Echoing these formulations, Sabri’s artistic practice at this time was dedicated to, above all, exposing socio-political injustice through painting. In fact, this objective extended to his efforts in all other areas, be they anti-imperialist writings, community work, or underground political engagements with Iraq’s opposition parties.35 In his paintings of political executions and collective suffering, Sabri articulated oppression and unequal power distribution, presenting a critique of the government’s policies and the state’s dysfunctional socio-economic frameworks, thus foregrounding collective hardships over personal concerns. By prioritizing intelligibility to the masses over subjective expression in his paintings, Sabri adopted oppositionary tactics, originally directed at Iraq’s monarchy and later at the nominal republic’s Ba’ath regime.36

Sabri’s deliberate use of Realism to reach a wide public calls to mind a passage from “Popularity and Realism” (1938), an influential essay by the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht.37 In defining the term popular, Brecht wrote:


Popular means: intelligible to the broad masses, adopting and enriching their forms of

expression / assuming their standpoint, confirming and correcting it / representing the most

progressive section of the people so that it can assume leadership, and therefore intelligible to

other sections of the people as well / relating to traditions and developing them /

communicating to that portion of the people which strives for leadership the achievements of the

section that at present rules the nation.38


Making art popular—in other words, accessible, representative of the broad masses, and rooted in recognizable local traditions—was an integral component of Realism’s educational and revolutionary mission. Similarly, Sabri’s work from the 1950s, particularly his Funeral of the Martyr series, deployed elements of Iraq’s popular traditions to create images that would speak to the general public. He invoked religious martyrdom in his paintings of political deaths in order to elicit empathy and righteous indignation from his Iraqi viewers.

An acknowledgement of the role of popularity in democratizing culture motivated Communist artists worldwide to renounce easel painting in favor of monumental art, recognizing its potential to overcome cultural elitism and, in a literal sense, make art public property. Monumentality, apart from placing art in the public sphere, also naturally lent itself to the depiction of heroic, larger-than-life protagonists, whose Herculean scale imbued the illustrated scenes with a formidable character. On the international stage, Mexican artists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco—the “big three,” all of whom Sabri cited as influences—championed mural painting with social and political content.39 Their approach to large-scale imagery evidently resonated with the Iraqi artist, because in 1960 he enrolled in the мастерская монументальной живописи [Monumental Art Studio] at the Surikov Art Institute, Moscow, to study under Aleksandr Deyneka.40 There, Sabri created a blueprint for a six-meter mosaic mural in Baghdad called Watani [My Homeland], which, due to unfavorable political developments, was never realized.

In contrast to the aforementioned definitions of Realism, Socialist Realism—a term coined in the Soviet Union in 1932—was a style that not only sought to communicate with the masses and inform their worldview, but also declared artists “engineers of the human soul” and called upon them to create images of valiant heroes who persevered against all odds and would serve as role models for their viewers.41 Foregrounding utopian conceptions of emancipation and equal rights, this art celebrated people fearlessly working towards a Communist state, overcoming hurdles along the way. Proponents considered Socialist Realism the style best suited to promoting Communism, and called for the portrayal of qualities like enthusiasm, optimism, and “the spirit of heroic deeds” in order to raise the morale of the proletariat and cultivate confidence in their ability to rise and thrive as a class. Rather than presenting social, political, and economic adversities as irreversibly weighing down the working class, Socialist Realism aimed to show the masses audaciously overcoming hardships, and to “depict reality in its revolutionary development.”42 It was no longer a call for change, but a bold representation of change in action.

Scholars such as Leah Dickerman have linked Socialist Realism to corrupt political aims, calling attention to its strategic use as a means of “historical self-construction” and an effort in “memory management,” and emphasizing its contributions to totalitarianism and top-down propaganda.43 Although Sabri admired a number of Soviet artists working in the mode of Socialist Realism, and deliberately opted to study art at the Surikov Art Institute, his own artistic vision and treatment of revolutionary themes contravened Socialist Realism’s mandate to depict only positive achievements and valiant heroism in art. Beginning in the late 1940s, Sabri’s practice centered on poverty and political oppression, and in the 1950s also began to deeply address the subject of martyrdom. His resolve to depict tragedy rather than fictional scenes of community solidarity, combined with his desire to experiment and push Realism to new heights—moving it away from the rigid academicism that the Soviet curriculum still maintained—ultimately created a rift between Sabri and his Russian mentors.44 While Sabri embraced Realism with enthusiasm, he never became a Socialist Realist.



Martyrdom and Funerary Processions


Sabri’s first brushes with the theme of political martyrdom occurred during the government’s backlash against Communists following the events of al-Wathba in 1949, but it was not until 1951 that he experienced an episode so moving that he embarked upon his Funeral of the Martyr series.45 The motivating event took place on December 3, 1951, when an incarceratead member of the ICP, Nu’man Muhammad Saleh, lost his life during a collective hunger strike.46 For several days, state authorities held his body in the forensic department and forbade his burial, until a member of the Central Committee of the ICP, Muhammad Salih al-Aballi (Sabri’s long-time friend, who helped him establish the summer school for the illiterate), snuck his body out of forensics and organized a processional funeral.47 Thousands of people attended the funeral, effectively transforming it into a demonstration denouncing the current regime and speaking out for the rights of the working classes.48 Muhammad Mahdi Al-Jawahiri—a well-known Iraqi poet, Communist, and good friend of Sabri’s—recited poetry over Saleh’s grave, lending further emotional and political significance to the event.49 Sabri’s personal knowledge of the deceased, coupled with the unusual circumstances of Saleh’s passing and the highly public nature of his commemoration—which Sabri’s close friends played a very active role in staging—had an immense and lasting influence on the artist. The heightened sense of comradery that the public funeral elicited, the shared disapproval of the ruling monarchy, and the fervent spectacle of the march itself surely had a tremendous psychosomatic impact on Sabri, as he bore first-hand witness to the events of that day. Iraqi Communists proclaimed Nu’man Muhammad Saleh a martyr and, following the march held in honor of his death, Sabri’s canvases began to embody the spirit of intense grief, depicting funerary processions and impassioned lamenting figures.

Collective sorrow and lament are sentiments that have a historically symbolic importance for the people of Iraq. The land’s long association and engagement with themes of ruination, warfare, and ensuing desolation date back to the country’s roots in Sumerian history. Since antiquity, Iraqi artists and writers have created pensive works, including poetic dirges like Lamentation Over the City of Ur, Lamentation Over the Destruction of Nippur, and Lamentation Over the Destruction of Akkad, all circa 2000 BCE, and various depictions of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in the Battle of Karbala, which merits a brief historic account.50

In 680 AD, a battle took place in the desert of Karbala, in what is now Iraq. Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, along with his band of 72 followers, was attacked and overtaken by the Umayyad caliph Yazeed and his army over the question of succession. One of the leaders of Yazeed’s forces, Shemr ibn Ziljawshan, beheaded Husayn in a bloody battle, which also took the lives of several family members, including his six-month old son, Ali al-Asghar. This slaughter took place on ‘Ashura, meaning “the tenth day” of the month of Muharram. Shi’a Muslims congregate each year on this day to commemorate the death of the Imam and perform lamentation rituals, grieving his loss.51 Typically, this day is characterized by large processions of people, who walk through the streets, often holding portable banners that depict Imam Husayn and the scenes of the battle.52 They chant, cry, and sometimes ceremonially inflict physical pain on themselves. This self-flagellation expresses sorrow and emulates the suffering that Husayn experienced on the day of his martyrdom. ‘Ashura days have also grown to incorporate a performative dimension, known as Passion Plays, in which people reenact the events of the battle and Husayn’s martyrdom.53


Fig. 5. Mahmoud Sabri, The Funeral of Numan Muhammad Saleh, 1950s, 31 1/2 x 74 13/16 in. (80 x 190 cm). Image courtesy of Dr. Hamdi Touqmachi.

Many of the paintings in Sabri’s Funeral of the Martyr series appear to translate the popular practices of lamentation rituals into visual images. Echoing elements of ‘Ashura marches and related Passion Plays, Sabri’s works from the series typically depict a corpse being carried through a crowd, a group of mourners bewailing the loss of life, and, occasionally, a congregation parading through the city streets holding portable banners. The Funeral of Numan Muhammad Saleh, painted in the 1950s, presents one of the earliest works from the series and provides an example of these recurrent motifs (Fig. 5). On the left-hand side of the composition, a chaotic conglomeration of people expresses fervent remorse over the death of Saleh, whose body is being carried by an organized file of figures on the far right. The mourners extend their arms towards the sky, cover their faces with the palms of their hands, and stoop to the ground in intense grief. One figure holds up a flag, presumably heralding revolutionary change. On a literal level, this painting narrates Numan Muhammad Saleh’s funeral and highlights Sabri’s disapprobation of Iraq’s ruling monarchy, especially its practice of incarcerating and executing his Communist comrades. On a more metaphorical level, however, this scene addresses not only Saleh’s passing, but also the deeply rooted significance of martyrdom and lamentation rituals in Iraqi culture more generally. By invoking these familiar themes and imbuing them with a more immediate political message, Sabri created both a charged depiction of tragedy and a call for change that resonated with local viewers on multiple planes.


Fig. 6. Mahmoud Sabri, study for The Funeral of the Martyr, 1950s. Screenshot from Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Longing for Freedom: Mahmoud Sabri, Part One,” (1985, released May 31, 2012), YouTube video, 8:45, https://tinyurl.com/yx98339h. Image courtesy of Bahjat Sabri Bedan.

Fig. 7. Mahmoud Sabri, study for The Funeral of the Martyr, 1950s. Screenshot from Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Longing for Freedom: Mahmoud Sabri, Part One,” (1985, released May 31, 2012), YouTube video, 8:45, https://tinyurl.com/yx98339h. Image courtesy of Bahjat Sabri Bedan.

Sabri’s depictions of a dead body in the Funeral of the Martyr series often include a pair of doves perched upon the deceased’s torso (Figs. 6 and 7). Doves, which are frequently linked to notions of peace, were a popular Communist symbol in Iraq and were incorporated into some ICP insignia. Their particular placement atop a corpse in Sabri’s compositions also recalls a theatrical ritual that is sometimes performed in public as part of the annual observances. A mid-eighteenth-century account of an ‘Ashura celebration describes how a man would perform the role of Husayn and, covered with a fabric shroud, be carried through the procession as a spectacle: “Several living doves sit on his body…. After a while, the men under the cover release their bonds, two at a time, so that they can ‘fly to Medina’ to announce Husayn’s death to his sister.”54 Elements of Sabri’s paintings resemble the description of this practice very closely, suggesting that he had likely witnessed similar rites performed on the streets of Baghdad.

Another detail that suggests a visual connection with performative rituals and ‘Ashura marches in Sabri’s work from this period is the repeated portrayal of men beating hand-held drums at the forefront of a procession, as can be seen in his 1961 work Funeral of the Martyr (Fig. 8). The rhythmic sound of this instrument is widely used both as an ordering mechanism for people walking in unison, and as a means to signal solemnity and ceremonial formality during a procession. It is likewise frequently linked to the act of calling people to action and symbolizing revolutionary change. On ‘Ashura days, it is common for mourners to congregate for sorrowful, poetic recitations performed in memory of the martyr, collectively grieving to the tune of beating drums and chants of “Ya Husayn.” After Sabri moved to Moscow in 1960 and began receiving technical training in draftsmanship and painting, the execution of figures and forms in his work became more detailed and anatomically precise. The drums in his paintings from the early 1960s acquired a distinctive shape—one with a clear articulation of the instrument’s many sides—closely resembling the images of octagonal drums that are used in contemporary Iraqi rituals (Fig. 9). The ample swing of the drummer’s arm in many of Sabri’s paintings also recalls the paced and ceremonial manner in which ‘Ashura drummers sway their arms up and down, not only setting a rhythm for the movement and the chanting of the crowd, but also using their bodies to echo the pulsating motion of the procession. Impassioned lamenting figures that appear in several paintings from this series were also likely modeled on real-life marchers whom Sabri witnessed participating in ceremonial processions.


Fig. 8. Mahmoud Sabri, Jnazet al-Shaheed or Funeral of the Martyr, 1961, oil on canvas, 39 x 55 in. (100 x 140 cm). © Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s, 2019.

Fig. 9. Drummers at an ‘Ashura procession in al-Mahdiya district, Hillah, Iraq, 2014. Screenshot from Qasim Suhael, موكب محله المهديه الحله [Procession of al-Mahdiya district in Hillah], (released November 13, 2014), YouTube video, 12:36, https://tinyurl.com/yxuybjd7.

These visual links to ‘Ashura processions in Sabri’s work suggest a folding of present-day events into the historical narrative of Imam Husayn’s martyrdom. This approach gave him an opportunity not only to depict sensitive political subjects, but also to communicate the poignant experience of grief that political martyrdom entails. Some historical accounts equate the sorrow, suffering, and self-flagellation of ‘Ashura marches with a mystical form of worship that facilitates a transcendental experience of the body—ideas that are also reflected in period reviews of Sabri’s work from the 1960s. Journalist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s description of Sabri’s work is here particularly apt: “…the agony dissolved gradually into lyricism, until Sabri’s hell-tormented men and women began to emerge as though in a trance of joy.”55 Building on these connections, I have argued that Sabri used elements of local customs as metaphors for contemporary tragic events that were unfolding in Iraq, hoping that the dual reference to tradition and common practices would resonate with the Iraqi public. It was Sabri’s interest in a shared, practiced identity—one in which broad sectors of Iraqi society took part, either as active participants or witnesses—that motivated his turning towards popular rituals, which he used to reflect upon current political issues. The notion of martyrdom, which pervaded his work from the period, was at once relevant to local audiences, characteristic of Communist glorification of political martyrs, and adept at referencing current events.



Research for this article was conducted as part of the author’s work towards a master’s thesis at MIT, titled “Iconographies of Pain in Mahmoud Sabri’s Work.”





1. After 1960, Mahmoud Sabri only went back to Iraq once, in 1973, to attend the Conference of Arab Artists. On this occasion, he remained in Baghdad for a month.

2. Nada M. Shabout, Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), 24.

3. Jewad Selim (1921–1961) was an influential Iraqi painter and sculptor who advocated for a synthesis of ancient heritage with modern forms. Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925–2004) was an Iraqi artist, writer, and educator who taught at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad between 1970 and 1980. Together, they co-founded the Baghdad Group for Modern Art in 1951. Faiq Hassan (1914–1992) was a prominent Iraqi artist and educator who served as the Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Institute of Fine Art in Baghdad from 1938 to 1962.

4. Shabout, Modern Arab Art, 24.

5. Ibid., 28-29.

6. Mathaf Encyclopedia of Modern Art and the Arab World, s.v., “Faiq Hassan,” accessed October 6, 2018, http://www.encyclopedia.mathaf.org.qa/en/bios/Pages/Faiq-Hassan-Alawi-al-Janabi.aspx.

7. Baghdad Group for Modern Art, “Baghdad Group for Modern Art Manifesto, 1951,” in Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, ed. Anneka Lenssen et al. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 150.

8. Soviet sources include Anatolii Andreevich Bogdanov, Современное изобразительное искусство Ирака [Modern Visual Art of Iraq, 1900s-1970s] (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, Leningradskoe otdelenie, 1982); Boris Vladimirovich Weimarn, “Проблема искусства в молодых государствах Азии и Африки [The Problem of Art in the Young Countries of Asia and Africa],” Iskusstvo 3 (1966): 56-65. Articles by Sabri include: Mahmoud Sabri, “مشكلة الرسم العراقي المعاصر [The Problem of Modern Iraqi Art],” Al-Adab (1956): 65-69; Mahmoud Sabri, “الفن العراقي بين عهدين [Iraqi Art Between Two Eras],” AlThaqafah AlJadeedah 7 (1959): 19-37; and Mahmoud Sabri, “Художник и реальный мир [Artist and the Real World],” Inostrannaya Literatura 6 (1963): 239-40.

9. Shakir Hassan Al Said, فصول من تاريخ الفن التشكيلي في العراق [Chapters from the History of the Visual Art Movement in Iraq], vol. 2 (Baghdad: Ministry of Culture and Information, 1988), 140.

10. Jaleel Kamaluddeen, “تأملات في معرض الرواد [Reflections on the Exhibition of the Pioneers],” Al-Adab 6 (1958): 87-90.

11. Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, “Art in Iraq Today” (London: Embassy of the Republic of Iraq, 1961), 6.

12. Satta Hashem and Yasmin Sabri, Mahmoud Sabri (1927-2012): First Retrospective (London: La Galleria Pall Mall, 2013). The exhibition was on view from June 25 to July 6, 2013.

13. Sabri’s work appeared in the following auctions: Christie’s, Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art, Sale 1230, March 19, 2014, Dubai; Christie’s, Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian, and Turkish Art, Sale 1233, October 21, 2014, Dubai; Christie’s, Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian, and Turkish Art, Sale 1237, March 18, 2015, Dubai; Christie’s, Dubai: Modern and Contemporary Art, Sale 14702, March 18, 2017, Dubai; Christie’s, Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art, Sale 15694, October 25, 2017, London; Christie’s, Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art, Sale 15890, October 24, 2018, London; and Sotheby’s, 20th Century Art / Middle East, Sale L19228, April 30, 2019, London. A work previously sold by Christie’s also appeared in the following auction: Sotheby’s, 20th Century Art / Middle East, Sale L18226, October 23, 2018, London.

14. See Bahjat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri Between Two Worlds, Part One” (2008), YouTube video, 13:43, May 31, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/y3b29zkz; Bahjat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri Between Two Worlds, Part Two” (2008), YouTube video, 15:00, June 1, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/y5a9d7ra; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri Between Two Worlds, Part Three” (2008), YouTube video, 14:11, June 1, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/y65tnhbm; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Longing for Freedom: Mahmoud Sabri, Part One” (1985), YouTube video, 8:46, May 31, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/yx98339h; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Longing for Freedom: Mahmoud Sabri, Part Two” (1985), YouTube video, 9:34, May 31, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/y2ajvxsn; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri on Jewad Selim” (2007), YouTube video, 6:04, June 21, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/yxcxkyb5; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri on Faiq Hassan” (2007), YouTube video, 6:03, June 27, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/y6cxooc3; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri on Al-Jawahiri” (2007), YouTube video, 3:08, June 21, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/y5b8m7uu; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri on Salam Adel” (2007), YouTube video, 2:03, June 27, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/y2t7x8r8; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri on Visual Art and the Political Operation” (2007), YouTube video, 8:25, June 22, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/yy7nzsgk; Bahiat Sabri Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri on the Current Situation in Iraq” (2007), YouTube video, 13:34, June 22, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/yybfbqls; and Hamdi Touqmachi, ed., Mahmoud Sabri: His Life, Art, and Thoughts (Amman, Jordan: Adib Books, 2007).

15. Antun Gustav Matoš, “Art and Nationalism,” trans. Iva Polak, in Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770-1945), vol. 3, pt. 2, Texts and Commentaries, ed. Ahmet Ersoy et al. (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2012), 288.

16. Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri Between Two Worlds.” Hafez Touqmachi, whom Mahmoud Sabri mentions in this quote, is Hamdi Touqmachi’s brother.

17. Touqmachi, ed., Mahmoud Sabri: His Life, Art, and Thoughts, 11-12.

18. Satta Hashem, email to Suheyla Takesh, November 25, 2017.

19. Satta Hashem, email to Suheyla Takesh, November 25, 2017.

20. Elizabeth F. Thompson, “The 1948 Wathba Revisited: Comrade Fahd and the Mass Appeal of Iraqi Communism,” International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies 12, no. 2 (2018): 127-45, https://doi.org/10.1386/ijcis.12.2.127_1.

21. Touqmachi, ed., Mahmoud Sabri: His Life, Art, and Thoughts, 282; and Satta Hashem, email to Suheyla Takesh, November 25, 2017.

22. The painting was sold at the exhibition, and no reproductions of it exist in published sources. Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri Between Two Worlds.”

23. Atta Sabri bears no relation to Mahmoud Sabri.

24. Samira Haj, The Making of Iraq, 1900-1963: Capital, Power, and Ideology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 102-03.

25. Elizabeth F. Thompson, Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 177-79.

26. Ibid.

27. Haj, The Making of Iraq, 103.

28. Thompson, Justice Interrupted, 177-79.

29. Sabri, “Iraqi Art Between Two Eras,” 19-37.

30. Panayiota Pyla, “Architects as Development Experts: Model Communities in Iraq and Syria,” in Landscapes of Development: The Impact of Modernization Discourses on the Physical Environment of the Eastern Mediterranean, ed. Panayiota Pyla (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 171.

31. Jonathan E. Sanford, Iraq’s Economy: Past, Present, Future (Washington: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 2003).

32. “Red Group: Manifesto, 1924,” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul J. Wood (Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 407.

33. Some of the figures and texts that Sabri quoted in his early published writings include: Bertolt Brecht, “Notes on Erwin Strittmatter’s Play Katzgraben,” 1953 in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, 1964; Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, 1925; Sidney Walter Finkelstein, Realism in Art, 1943; Finkelstein, How Music Expresses Ideas, 1952; Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, 1963; Louis Harap, Social Roots of the Arts, 1949; Francis Klingender, Marxism and Modern Art, 1945; Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and his Teachings, 1915; Lenin, The Tasks of the Youth Leagues, 1920; Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, 1852; Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859; Marx, and Engels, The German Ideology, 1932; Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art, 1931; Read, Art and Society, 1937; Read, The Philosophy of Modern Art, 1952; Curt Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments, 1940; and Elie Siegmeister, The Music and Society, 1938.

34. See Francis D. Klingender, Marxism and Modern Art: An Approach to Social Realism (1943; repr. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975); and Francis D. Klingender, “Content and Form in Art,” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000, ed. Harrison and Wood, 437.

35. Satta Hashem, email to Suheyla Takesh, November 25, 2017.

36. Prior to 1958, the Kingdom of Iraq was a Hashemite monarchy, ruled by King Faisal II. In July 1958, a revolution broke out, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the Iraqi Republic under the leadership of army brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim. In February 1963, the first Ba’ath military coup d’état took place in Iraq, in which the Ba’ath party overthrew Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim’s government and seized state power. During their short-lived rule, they organized the execution of hundreds and the imprisonment of thousands of Communists, as well as other members of the opposition. This time around, Ba’ath rule lasted only until November 1963, when the party was overthrown and a new, pro-Nasserist government was established in Iraq under Abdul Salam Arif. The Ba’ath party seized power again in 1968, which they would hold until 2003.

37. While, to the best of my knowledge, Sabri did not cite this particular essay in his own writings, he did reference other texts by Brecht. Brecht’s attempt to define what constitutes socially engaged art, published only a few years before Sabri joined the ICP, makes “Popularity and Realism” especially relevant to my discussion.

38. Bertold Brecht, “Popularity and Realism, 1938,” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000, ed. Harrison and Wood, 499. The emphasis is my own.

39. Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri Between Two Worlds.”

40. Satta Hashem, email to Suheyla Takesh, November 25, 2017.

41. The Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of the Soviet Union coined the term “Socialist Realism” in 1932. While the definition of Socialist Realism originally applied to literature, it soon extended to other creative fields in the USSR, and found expression in music, film, and the visual arts. See Andrei Zhdanov, “Speech to the Congress of Soviet Writers, 1932,” in Art in Theory, 1900-2000, ed. Harrison and Wood, 428.

42. Ibid.

43. For further reading, see Leah Dickerman, “Camera Obscura: Socialist Realism in the Shadow of Photography,” October 93 (Summer 2000): 138-53, https://doi.org/10.2307/779160; and Christina Kiaer, “Was Socialist Realism Forced Labour? The Case of Aleksandr Deineka in the 1930s,” Oxford Art Journal 28, no. 3 (2005): 321-45, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxartj/kci031.

44. Satta Hashem, email to Suheyla Takesh, November 25, 2017.

45. Bedan, “Mahmoud Sabri Between Two Worlds.”

46. Bedan, “Longing for Freedom.”

47. Al-Aballi was later executed by the Ba’ath regime on July 21, 1963, along with a number of other members of the Communist Party. See Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba`thists and Free Officers (London: Saqi, 2013), 674, 989; and Muzahem Mubarak Malallah, “Mohammed Saleh Al-Aballi and the Ba’athist Coup of February 1963,” last modified July 13, 2016, http://iraqicparchives.com/index.php/sections/objekt/45442-2016-07-13-19-47-55.

48. “Mahmoud Sabri (Iraqi, 1927-2012), Jnazet (Funeral),” Christie’s Auctions and Private Sales, accessed March 21, 2018, https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/mahmoud-sabri-iraqi-1927-2012-jnazet-funeral-5875509-details.aspx.

49. Malallah, “Mohammed Saleh Al-Aballi.”

50. Thomas F. McDaniel, “The Alleged Sumerian Influence upon Lamentations,” Vetus Testamentum 18, no. 2 (1968): 198, https://doi.org/10.2307/1516916.

51. Peter Chelkowski, “Narrative Painting and Painting Recitation in Qajar Iran,” Muqarnas 6 (1989): 98, https://doi.org/10.2307/1602284.

52. Ibid., 101.

53. Ibid., 100.

54. Thomas Salmon and Matthias V. Goch, Die heutige Historie und Geographie, oder, Der gegenwärtige Staat vom Königreich Persien (Flensburg: Korte, 1739), 249-53. Translation in Chelkowski, “Narrative Painting,” 99.

55. Jabra, “Art in Iraq Today,” 6.