I learned about Qais Al Sindy, a renowned artist, some four years ago when I was working on a book called Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists. He lived in California so I was only able to interview him over the phone. This year he made his first visit to Michigan and we had the chance to meet in person.
What I admired about Qais was not only his artwork but also his work ethics. He’s very disciplined, with a confidence that nourishes his talents and enables him to succeed and therefore sustain himself by being a full time artist. This is despite having come to the United States a little over a decade ago.
The following is an excerpt from Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists which highlights Qais Al Sindy and 15 other Iraqi American artists.
Qais was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1967 and started painting when he was about fourteen years old. At his teacher’s suggestion, he made reproductions of master painters such as seventeenth century Diego Velasquez, Vermeer and Raphael. In college, he studied engineering at the University of Baghdad. He excelled in his studies, but he soon discovered that this field was not for him.
After graduation in 1989, he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts. He told the administration, “If you force me to be a Baathist, I will study outside this country and you will lose me.”
They made an exception to his non-Baathist affiliation and enrolled him. In 2002, he attained a diploma in French language from the Cultural French Center in Baghdad and in 2004, he graduated with an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts. His thesis was about Christian paintings from all over Iraq. This led him to take a big tour of Iraq, to visit all the monasteries and different cities from Zakho (in the Kurdisan region) to al-Faw (marshy region in the extreme southeast of Iraq).
“It was dangerous to travel, especially since I did not have a sponsor,” he said. “I paid from my own pockets and drove my own car. Because I speak English very well, I managed well at American checkpoints. I received harassment from the insurgents and extremists, but at that time, it wasn’t very severe. I managed, but I did leave the country shortly after graduating.”
Qais has held art exhibits all over the world, his artwork drawing so much attention that nearly a dozen books have been published about it by various venues, including Kuwait Cultural Center and Iraqi Cultural Center in Washington, DC. As I mentioned earlier, he lives in California where he has no other profession than that of an artist.
“I don’t do anything else in this world except for art,” he said. “If you are able to do the art that you like and find a way to sell it, this means that you believe in yourself.”
Qais says that when he paints, he tries to get his resources from overseas, his homeland. He is also known to engage audiences in his artwork. An example of this is in his Mamdooh series.
“After I left Iraq, I lived in Jordan, where I taught art for the students in the architectural department,” he said. “One day I heard that one of my dearest friends in Iraq, a talented portrait artist named Mamdooh suffered injuries as a result of a car explosion that injured and killed many people. He was transferred to the hospital where he struggled against death for one week, then died.”
This led Qais to do a series of four paintings. The first one, he did a portrait of Mamdooh, using an expressionist style that focuses on his appearance. The second painting is a ghostly figure with transparency like his character, full of hue colors. It is the moment which Mamdooh suffers and dies. In the third painting, he brought some ashes and charcoal from the ruins of the car that exploded and drew Mamdooh using those ashes. That means Mamdooh is gone. The fourth painting is a pure blank canvas.
“Everyone is well aware that it’s prohibited to touch the art works in galleries and in museums,” he said. “But in this artwork, I came up with something new to complete the fourth painting. I asked the viewers to wipe their hands on painting number three. Of course, now their hands are stained with charcoal and ashes. They want to clean their hands, but I ask the crowd to wipe their hands on the blank canvas, on painting number four. The fingerprints on the canvas mean that you’re a participant of this crime in Iraq.”
Qais says that this was his way of asking his audience to live this moment as a kind of sharing and participating to the message that he wanted to deliver. He wants to tell people that it is up to us to make this world the best place to live in.
He showed this series in more than ten countries, and people insisted on participating in the artwork. So when you see the fourth one, you see more than a thousand people’s fingerprints.
“Everyone wants to show that they are responsible for us not having peace in this world,” he said. “The frames are cracked and damaged because they toured many many countries. I kept it as it is.”
Qais’ biggest challenge is having to do everything himself. He even made an eleven minute documentary about the burning of the Iraqi library, called Letters Don’t Burn. Projects that he works on today have more of a humanitarian theme. They don’t only encompass the Iraqi subject, because he wants to do something for our globe, not just for Iraq. One of the projects he did was called the Bridge. It showcased the work of forty seven premier and emerging Arab, Persian and Jewish visual artists around the theme of what “bridges” us to each other.
Qais’ synopsis was to collect stones and bricks and, instead of hitting each other with stones and bricks, to build a bridge out of them that would start a cultural dialogue between different countries.
“This would help create love,” he said, “because if I love you I will not fight you. If I love you, then I will put my hands with your hands and we will build something together. All the problems in this universe are the result of us not loving each other. People’s desires for opportunism, greed, for looking out for themselves and not each other, are the reasons we don’t have universal peace.”
To learn more about Qais Al Sindy and his exhibits, visit his website: http://www.qaissindy.com/