Theses Doctoral

Dreaming of Ancient Times: Mesopotamia and the Temporal Topography of Iraqi Modern Art, 1958-2003

Floyd, Tiffany Renee

This dissertation addresses the relationship between modern art in Iraq and the region’s antique past, particularly as it was constituted through archaeological, artistic, museological, and critical developments within the context of Iraqi cultural nationalism. I argue that Iraqi modern artists in the last four decades of the twentieth century harnessed the iconographic, symbolic, and aesthetic tropes associated with ancient Mesopotamia in service to the larger project of participating in and contributing to a locally constructed modality of modern time. Although it is generally acknowledged that modern Iraqi artists drew from an adopted antiquity, the intellectual utilization of “Mesopotamia” as an aesthetic and historical category within the context of modern art formation and assertion has not been adequately explored for significance and meaning. In a series of three case studies, I explore the modern category of “Mesopotamia” as it was employed in the aesthetic, stylistic, and narratological practices of three Iraqi artists – Mohammed Ghani Hikmat (1929-2011), Dia al-Azzawi (b. 1939), and Faisel Laibi Sahi (b.1947).

These artists – representing three successive generations – are emblematic of the primary ways Iraqi artists of the latter half of the twentieth century sought a relationship with an ancient past that not only exemplified provocative and enduring artforms, but also civilizational achievement and resilience. Furthermore, their practices point to a new understanding of modern time that was taking shape in the discursive structures of Iraqi art beginning in the 1960s. The artists that occupy the pages of this study engaged a vision of time that moved away from the linear models of European historicism and embraced a localized perception of temporality that was shaped by spatial paradigms of coexistence wherein civilizational categories operated on the coterminous plane of heterochronicity. This marks a shift wherein claims of contemporaneity, a self-conscious positioning of Iraqi modernism on a parallel trajectory with European modernism, gave way to an exploration of internal temporal relationships that allowed for synchronic interactions with history even within diachronic narratives of progress.

Each case study operates within individual spheres of interpretation whilst also sharing broader characteristics of analysis. In the hands of my chosen artists, time became a medium of expression and antiquity became the formal and subjective substance of that expression. My study utilizes theories of time coupled with various methods of visual deconstruction to investigate this claim. Part One considers the career of sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat by reading his relief sculptures and their preparatory sketches through the lens of narrative space-time, examining the artist’s techniques of visual storytelling to determine how his use of ancient sculptural models created heterochronic spaces of encounter.

Part Two takes an archaeological and geological perspective of time, as one that is simultaneous, stratified, and rooted in the land, to think about the print works of Dia al-Azzawi within the intertwined contexts of art, antiquity, and oil. Part Three reflects on the affective artistic production of Faisel Laibi Sahi by identifying his use of ancient iconography as a mechanism whereby he heightens the emotive address of his paintings and drawings. In all three studies, I employ iconographic and semiotic methodologies to perform detailed visual analyses of a wide range of artworks. Additionally, I survey a cache of archival documents that elucidate various discursive spaces in the Iraqi modern intellectual milieu to ascertain attitudes toward antiquity and its role in contemporary cultural spheres. Thus, this dissertation pulls multiple strands of time, modernity, and visuality together to investigate the ways Iraqi modern artists transformed the notion of “Mesopotamia” into a viable aesthetic and a powerful representational model.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Bahrani, Zainab
Alberro, Alexander
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 27, 2021