Qasim Sabti Press

A Tale of the Phoenix

This is the story behind the collages, as told by the artist:

“In April, 2003, the bombings took a heavy toll on Baghdad. Many parts of the city were reduced to rubble. Worse, chaos broke out in the streets, driving the city into utter hell.  

The morning after that first sleepless night I went to check on a place most dear to me, the Academy of Fine Arts. It was here that I had studied and enhanced my artistic skills. And it was here that I have taught painting to many students.  To my dismay, the Academy’s street was littered with books, and pages torn from them blew in the dry wind. As I entered the Academy’s library, my senses were abruptly confronted by an acrid smoke that silently drifted above irregular mounds of charred books.  In that instant of discovery, combined with pain, I saw that my beloved Academy had become another victim of a mob out of control. They had emptied the library shelves and set the books afire. The destruction was total. As I walked about, the pressure of my feet on damp and partially burned pages seemed to gently squeeze more pungent odors into the silence around me. I realized that a new bitterness in the air was the source of my tears. I just couldn’t be certain how much of those tears were caused by the smoke and how much were from being emotionally distraught.

      I felt like a fireman desperately in need of finding survivors. As I pushed through the piles, I noticed a few books that, although covered with soot, appeared to have survived. That’s when I spotted a book with a pale yellow cover. As I picked it up, I felt my fingers shaking. I brushed off the soot. Here was a survey of beautiful Russian landscape paintings. Suddenly, just as I started to turn the pages, the book collapsed. The whole block of pages, first weakened by the fire and later by the water, dropped from its spine. The pages scattered around me on the damp dirty floor.

      Now I held only the cloth cover. Looking closer, I was haunted by the little details of life that filled the inside cover: strips of cotton, some Arabic verses scribbled in pencil, notes written by the librarian. My imagination was reborn. Here I found the essence of life deeply inscribed as signs of one book’s extensive journey. I was filled with a new sense of life and hope.  I also found it visually inspiring. Like the fireman realizing that some victims were still breathing, I began to gather together more covers that called to me.  The appearance of the cover was most important. Collectively, these books challenged me to bring them back to life from their graveyard floor.

      I brought a pile of the damaged covers back to my studio and immediately started to work. With passionate fingers, I started to transform them. First, I rubbed their surfaces to remove much of their previous literary appearance. Next, I cut swatches from the covers, punched holes, re-applied loose delicate strings and lacey webbings, and even painted on them. In the process, I was ever-mindful that these books once documented so many great achievements in world history. Once, they had been valuable resources for the people of Iraq. Now, in their transformed state, these collages were bringing back life to books whose texts had been completely destroyed. These works of art are newly-derived from sacred bones. As such, they should stand as symbolic documents of the resilience of cultural life. They are also my attempt to gain victory over the destruction surrounding us in Baghdad.”