The Corvus Art Gallery on Whalley Avenue is a long way from Saddam Hussein’s former palace in Iraq. Ala Bashir has worked in both.
In fact, Bashir, the man who once served as the Iraqi dictator’s plastic surgeon, is now working out of an art studio located just two miles from central campus, though he has barely made a blip on Yale’s radar.
Bashir, it seems, has lived a double life. During his 15-year stint as a high-ranking plastic surgeon to the Hussein family, which ended with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he worked with a team to treat around 22,000 injuries in Iraq during the country’s war against Iran, providing aid to patients with severe burns and developing techniques to reattach severed hands. He remained on call at all times — and when summoned, especially by Hussein, he could not refuse.
At the same time, though, Bashir was earning a reputation as one of Iraq’s premier surrealist artists; after putting on his first solo exhibition in 1958, he averaged two exhibitions each year.
Sitting in his New Haven studio, this is what he wants to talk about. In an interview, Bashir dodges questions about his time with Hussein, declining to delve into details about his surgeries or even life in general with the former dictator. He does not want to talk about Hussein’s execution or expound on the anecdotes he divulged in his 2005 memoir, “The Insider” — the time he performed a secret face-lift on Hussein’s mistress, for example, or the time he humored the dictator as he obsessed over an injury to his pinkie finger sustained during a car crash.
Instead, he wants to talk about his art. He says art “never lies.”
“Anything in this life is centered around mankind, and what I do in my painting is a reflection of my environment wherever I go,” he said. “It reflects my environment, and my experience with people.”
‘The human struggle’
Despite the infamous brutality of the Hussein regime, artists were allowed a relative degree of freedom so long as they remained politically neutral, Nada Shabout, a professor of art history at the University of North Texas and a preeminent expert on Middle Eastern art, said in an interview.
“The situation was that if you stayed away from politics and kept your mouth shut, you will be fine,” she wrote in an e-mail from Amman, Jordan, where she is teaching a course on modern Arab art history. “And for artists, that meant state support continued.”
Bashir said for the most part, Hussein “left visual artists alone” and did not control the subject matter of specific pieces of art — unless he was throwing a party. The Baath regime followed his lead.
“On some level he understood that modern Iraqi art was very advanced in the region,” Bashir said of Hussein. “No artist was forced to do anything specific, including painting his portraits. The Baath regime understood the value of art and thus regulated even the study of art in the Academy.”
Even though he insists his art is apolitical, though, Bashir said some of his pieces do reflect the suppression and suffering of the dictator’s regime. His 2003 painting “Decorated Mask with Boot,” for example, depicts a room with an elaborately decorated gold mask crushing a pair of combat boots.
Still, regardless of his former ties to a highly politicized (to say the least) figure, Bashir said he still considers himself an artist first, not a doctor — and certainly not a political figure.
“All my life, I looked down [on] politics,” Bashir said. “[My art] is not political. It is about the human struggle.”
Mixed reviews in New Haven
Bashir fled the country when the war began in 2003, spending time in Qatar, Norway and England before coming to the United States. For more than three years, his entire collection of artwork — apart from the 27 works destroyed in the 2003 insurgent looting of the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art — has been on display in New Haven’s Corvus Art Gallery.
Lesley Roy, who curates the exhibit, met Bashir in London and subsequently orchestrated the retrieval of Bashir’s surviving works from around the world.
The two-story gallery has become a destination for luminaries since Bashir’s work went on display: Charles Duelfer, former United Nations weapons inspector and head of the Iraq Survey group, Samir Shakir al-Sumaydi, Iraqi ambassador to the United States, even Veronica Atkins of Atkins Diet fame have all made the trip to the Elm City to see the work of Bashir, who Shabout described as “one of Iraq’s main surrealist artists.”
“His response to Iraq’s history is stylistically different than the mainstream, and perhaps symbolically more intense,” she said.
In spite of the distinction that Bashir’s art has achieved, virtually no one from Yale has stepped foot inside the gallery, Roy said. And members of the Yale community may never, in fact, see the artist or his work. The gallery owners recently began to scale back operations in New Haven and are considering other locations for future exhibitions of Bashir’s work — locations as far away as Dubai. Earlier this month, Roy sealed a deal with the Museum of Middle East Modern Art in the United Arab Emirates to purchase six of Bashir’s works that were painted in Doha, Qatar in 2003. Roy put the lease for her gallery on the market on Sept. 12, the day after the museum wired her the funds for the sold paintings.
Roy, who now plans to relocate to a smaller space, said when she proposed an exhibition of the paintings at the Yale University Art Gallery, she quickly discovered the venue was booked solid well into the future. Her contacts at various academic departments and student groups, including the Arab Students’ Association, also failed to spark any partnerships, she said.
Greta Scharnweber, outreach director for the Council on Middle East Studies, said she remembers speaking with Roy a few years ago about Bashir’s work. But Scharnweber said by the time Roy had contacted her, the chance for collaboration had passed.
“It just hasn’t come up that the perfect alignment has happened, mainly due to the fact that we don’t have a lot of people focused on Iraq in terms of faculty members at Yale,” she said. “Not enough interest is in general paid to the arts — it’s not just Iraqi art.”
But Bashir said he was “a little amazed” that no one from the University made the trip to see his work. It would have been an opportunity, he said.
“[Yale] should have taken this … unique opportunity built by an American individual to promote this cultural bridge between America and people outside,” he said.
After all, Bashir pointed out, this bridge is based on culture and art — “a universal language.”