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Of fantasy and legends.

An exhibition of the paintings of Suad al Attar opens in London this month.

In a stark, airy, white walled studio above a busy West London street Iraqi artist Suad al Attar is preparing for her next exhibition to open at the capital's prestigious Leighton House Museum on 17 May. Fantasy, legend and dreams are the inspirations behind her paintings which present a compelling visual interpretation of a life lived in the West, directed by a soul that remains intrinsically Arab.

Born in Baghdad where she lived until travelling to the United States to study at the age of 17, Suad al Attar speaks lovingly of her homeland and the "golden years" of the 1960s when, she recalls, the cultural scene in Baghdad buzzed with excitement. "Iraqis love to collect -- paintings, carpets, sculpture, its part of their make up. In the 1960s exhibitions were like social events, they attracted everyone. The collectors of course, but even those people who couldn't afford to collect were still fascinated, everyone came to look and to give their opinion."

Then in her 20s Suad al Attar was already considered one of Iraq's leading serious artists. "I began painting seriously when I was about eight years old although I was fascinated by drawing and the use of colour long before then. My mother is a painter and even though she is in her eighties she still draws. Both my parents encouraged me to be a painter, my father bought me my first brushes. Their encouragement and their acknowledgement that what I was doing was very serious gave me confidence from the start."

The first Iraqi woman to have a solo exhibition in Baghdad, Suad al Attar has held 16 solo exhibitions internationally and participated in over 50 international group exhibitions. She recalled one of the highspots of her career when the former President of India, the late Indira Ghandi, on a visit to Baghdad selected one of her paintings from the many on display. "The painting was of a woman. Indira Ghandi studied it, asked about my inspiration for the work and was very complimentary." The former Indian president was clearly impressed by the painting, so much so that she left the exhibition with it under her arm.

Women feature prominently in many of Suad al Attar's paintings. "Being a woman, being a painter and being Iraqi, all of these are important to me and influence what I paint. I like to feel I am an example of modern Arab woman because there are millions like me who started their careers early and were serious about their work, women who have balanced the responsibilities of having a family with a career. At 21 I had a husband and three young daughters, I was also teaching, I was a student and I was painting. But that is not unusual, it's the same story as that of any hard working woman anywhere."

Suad al Attar believes a painter must be active to be creative and finds it impossible to understand how some painters go on churning out the same themes in the same style month after month, year after year. "An artist should be a free soul, a free mind. He has a duty to keep searching within himself, to combine his true feelings with outside inspiration to go forward and develop. Once a subject is done, it's over, it's dead. Doing the same thing is killing, for me every painting is a new beginning."

In her elegant London home Suad al Attar's career is charted from its early beginnings as a child in Baghdad to the present day and the range is indeed varied, revealing the multi-faceted creativity of this talented woman. Her latest work, inspired by a postcard from a friend, forms the centre-piece of her Leighton House exhibition. The canvas, which is bigger than its creator, immediately conjures up an impression of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which, according to legend, was sited in Mesopotamia. Animals and birds can be spotted lurking amid lush vegetation and the palm trees which frequently appear in Al Attar's work. "I looked at the empty canvas for a long time before beginning but then once I started I found it difficult to stop," explained Al Attar, for whom a working session can be 15 hours long. "I prefer to work at night when everything is quiet and still but sometimes, when I am absorbed in what I am doing, it feels as if only a short time has passed but suddenly it's morning."
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Title Annotation:career of Iraqi artist Suad al Attar
Author:Lancaster, Pat
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
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