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KURDISTAN IRAQ : Rostam Aghala, A Romantic Kurdish Painter

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Rostan with a painting of his wifeMost Kurdish and Iraqi painters are haunted by the effects Saddam Hussain’s dictatorial regime has had on the minds and personal freddoms of the country’s people. However, these influences are not apparent in the work of Rostam Aghala, not immediately at least.

His colourful paintings explore relationships between men and women and are rife with romanticism. Their exuberant style is unique in Kurdistan but not perhaps for those familiar with the work of the 20th century Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. As with Klimt, closer examination of Rostam Aghala’s spectacular canvases will often reveal another, darker, side to his work.

Born in 1969 in the small Kurdish town of Koy Sinjak, Rostam became a painter by chance. He recalls how at school he was regarded as a poor student by his art teacher. On one occasion, in order to secure a good mark, he submitted work that had been painted by one of his brothers. At 15 came his first big love, Nisrin. In order to impress her, he copied a painting using... a calque, and gave it to her as a token of affection. It was the beginning of his career: "This girl is the reason I became a painter", he explains.

Old man and peacockRostam decided to apply to the Art school in neighbouring Suleimania. As part of the portfolio he was required to submit, he copied some portraits of women, originally the work of a famous Iranian woman artist. However Rostam Aghala made some slight modifications -- he painted his women without clothes. Despite his inventiveness, he was not even offered an interview. The second time around he dropped the naked women and was finally admitted in 1984. Rostam laughs as he tells his story, but clearly these years were difficult years for him. His father was a lowly municipality employee and he had a large family of 11 children to support on his meagre wages. Rostam had no money, and had to borrow cash from his friends -- mostly girls -- at school in order to continue with his work.

A desperate poor student

Eventually the time came when the girls refused to loan him money. Because he did not have enough money to buy even the canvas, he decided to kill himself. He explains how he attempted to throw himself under a car, but the car stopped in time. It was not the last time Rostam would try to kill himself which, after meeting him, is difficult to believe: always smiling or laughing, Rostam looks like the happiest painter on earth.

a woman shepherdTo graduate from his Art school, Rostam was asked to present a copy of a masterpiece. In an Iraqi magazine he saw a reproduction of a painting he instantly admired -- "Love". Before 1993 he had not even known the name of the artist who painted it. Rostam presented his work. It was rejected on the pretext that the artist was "not a great master": The painter whose work Rostam had copied was Gustav Klimt, an Austrian (1862-1918) of the famous "Secessionist School", who painted the world in its "feminine appearance".

Between 1989-1990, Rostam Aghala discovered another discipline: he was called up for the army. He deserted after the Iraqi army was defeated in Kuwait. For three months he locked himself in a room, and worked on paintings inspired by the Surrealists. The three years that followed were difficult. Rostam survived by selling books on the street og Bagdad and working in factories. He was so poor he could not afford the materials to paint and so depressed that again he tried to take his own life.

In 1993 his life took a new -- happy -- turn. An American journalist he met by chance bought one of his paintings for $400, a fortune for the impoverished Rostam. The same journalist also gave him a book about the work of Gustav Klimt and Rostam discovered the identity of the painter he had copied, some years before.He also learned that despite his information to the contrary, this painter was not an unknown artist, but a master painter worthy of his admiration and a credible source of inspiration.

Frequently falling in love

Since becoming a teenager Rostam confesses to frequently falling in love with girls -- some of whom he did not even speak to -- but in 1995 he met Goulala and this, he decided, was the real thing. However, Goulala’s father, a businessman from Suleimania, did not want his daughter involved with "a colourist"; a simple villager from an unknown family. In despair, Rostam made plans to leave his homeland for Europe, like so many young people in Iraqi Kurdistan. At this point Hero Talabani, the wife of Jelal Talabani, the powerful PUK leader, intervened on Rostam’s behalf: Goulala’s father eventually gave in and agreed the couple could marry.

A new life began for Rostam, he was in love and happily married to a beautiful woman from an affluent family, who would become his favourite model. But Rostam still had a problem. Women are one of the main theme of his work but he cannot paint from memory, he needs a model, which raises many problems in the very traditional Kurdish society. He loved to paint Goulala, who was now fully available as a model and appears in many of his paintings but he needed other sources of inspiration in order to vary his work. Goulala had a sister whom Rostam also liked to paint. But he admits that Goulala is quite jealous and he has problems if he looks for models outside the family circle.

The Kurdish elite started buying his paintings: Jelal and Hero Talabani bought some of his large paintings to decorate their dining room in Qala Tchwalan. PUK minister Adnan Mufti bought canvasesfor his office and home. But Rostam’s clients are mainly foreigners -- the UN and NGO workers, and the press, and it is a an irregular clientele. Rostam’s problem is that the Kurdish people rich enough to buy his paintings have little esteem for his "folklorist" and "coulourist" style: "I could just as well hang a kilim on my wall", says a wealthy businessman. Such a comment reflects a simplistic view of Rostam’s paintings and a failure to look beyond their immediate colourful appearance.

Beyond the immediate colourful appearance

In one of his paintings, "Shvan" (the Shepherd), a young woman wears the traditional dress of the Kurdish shepherds. She is beautiful but obviously unhappy: two big drops on her mantle symbolise her tears and at the same time the womb. On her shoulder two strange birds are mating upside down. A butterfly hovers above her. What does it all mean? "One day I went to the village of Tak Tak, near Koy Sinjak", says Rostam, "and I met a very pretty woman shepherd: she could not bear children, so her husband made her a shepherd. All the time, while watching her sheep, she was dreaming of sex and babies -- the butterfly symbolises her dreams, and the birds are upside down because they cannot make love"... The story of this woman does not end here, explains Rostam: her estranged husband married a second wife, who was also unable to bear children. After undergoing tests at the hospital it was discovered that it was he who was sterile.

In another painting, "Anfal", a bearded old man sits in a meadow full of red poppies, with a young woman, his grand daughter, behind him, and a steep mountain in the background. The old man has lived through Anfal (a terrible campaign against the Kurds in 1988 which claimed 180.000 victims) and is recounting his memories to his grand daughter. "The landscape is beautiful", says Rostam. "But because nature is beautiful does not mean you have a beautiful life. Our country was beautiful when Anfal happened and Anfal could happen again". Many details of Rostam Aghala’s paintings reveal intriguing anomalies that are wide open to interpretation: the meadow is empty without any sign of grazing cattle; the old man’s rifle is half hidden behind him. The pigeons on the tree don’t look at each other. The mountain is arid, without any sing of shrub or tree. The sky is not blue but red. The peacock, which towers above the girl and her grandfather, has no feathers".

So who is the real Rostam? The happy, laughing painter with a palette of luxurious coulours or the bitter unhappy Kurd who cannot forget his people’s pain and the uncertainty of their destiny? "My life is like my painting", Rostam responds, "I am making experiences"...

 (The Middle East magazine, May 2003)

 

 

 

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