The artist, an immigrant from Iraq, proves the creative spirit can rise above the brutal ugliness of war.
Hashim Hannoon’s painting “Colourful Seaside” looks a lot like Victoria. But it could be elsewhere. Summer is in full swing in this impressionistic vista of a tourist town. Multicoloured umbrellas dot the causeway; sail boats bob in blue water. Cheerful flags flutter above a palatial hotel wrapped in misty colours of mauve and ochre. A bright red tour bus toots along the roadway. There is joy in the zingy palette of reds and yellows, and peaceful shelter in cool patches of emerald green. This idyllic painting is not unusual, but knowing the history of the artist, to me it appears miraculous.
Hashim Hannoon was born in a Basrah, Iraq, a shipping centre located on a river in southern Iraq, close to the Persian Gulf. In 1979 the artist was 22, a recent graduate from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. That year he received a Golden Sail Award for work shown in the Fourth Kuwait Biennial. The future looked bright. Basrah was a beautiful bustling city with a network of freshwater canals and walkways along the river.
One year later, in 1980, war erupted between Iran and Iraq. Basrah’s strategic position near shipping lanes caused it to come under missile fire and chemical warfare attacks.
Hashim Hanoon with his painting "City Colours" (48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas)
The emotional toll of Basrah’s bombardments on the artist’s psyche are seen in many of his earlier artworks. Explosions, fire and fragments rip across canvases; burlap and distressed surfaces form the grounds. The burlap fabric refers to the sandbags piled near roadsides and buildings to buffer attacks and shield civilians. Between 1980 and 1988 thousands of people on both sides lost their lives and the entire region destabilized. “I witnessed the war during my twenties,” says Hannoon, “therefore the impact of the conflict manifested in my paintings for a long time.”
In spite of the war, Hannoon continued to produce art and attend various exhibitions in Baghdad, Turkey and Yemen. Medals and awards also continued for the talented artist throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1999, he completed a Bachelor of Sculpture at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad. His rough-hewn expressive figural pieces are cast in bronze. In 2007, he produced a series of pen-and-ink drawings included in a major exhibition at the O. Gallery in Saudi Arabia.
I ask the artist how it was possible for him to continue to be so productive. “I managed to keep doing art because this is my profession and how I express my feelings,” he says. He declines further comment on the war because it brings back sad memories. In 1999, Hannoon and family moved to Jordan. In December 2008 they moved to Winnipeg, and two years later to Vancouver.
In June, Victoria’s Madrona Gallery will feature Hannoon’s “City Life” exhibit. “Colour is paramount in Hashim Hannoon’s artwork,” says gallery owner Michael Warren. “Shapes and patterns define the imaginative spaces he creates for viewers.” In 2016, Madrona Gallery featured Hannoon in a solo show. People were refreshed by his palette and technique, and sales were brisk. “The artist chooses to look at the good side of humanity,” says Warren, “in spite of past experiences.”
"August" 30 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas
Landing in Winnipeg in the middle of winter proved a chilly welcome for the family. Hannoon records his experiences in the painting “Icy Roads.” A subdued palette of grey-brown predominates the canvas. The spidery trunks of leafless trees flank the white icy roadways. A textured background suggests drifts of snow and a windblown sky. Looking closely, there are glimmers of gold leaf in the sky, and silver leaf shines on the icy roadway. Welcome dashes of red, yellow, lime and cinnamon vitalize the canvas. “Adding colours adds depth to the artwork,” says Hannoon. “I often use gold and silver leaf to add light and beauty to my work.”
Over his long career, Hannoon has experimented with many materials and methods. He often uses mixed media to build a rough ground for his paintings. “Every surface and technique provides a different sensation and outcome,” he says.
Works completed for the show at Madrona Gallery include acrylic on canvas, paper, and board. “Wonderful World” is a 24-by-20-inch acrylic painting on paper. The placement of colour fields in a puzzle- like formation makes a lively abstraction. A rainbow of hues, arranged with skill and confidence, move our eyes around the composition. Hannoon deftly uses shape and colour to create emotional impact and narrative content. The artist explains his exceptional abilities with a few simple words: “When I add well-mixed shape and colour masses, this brings a sense of comfort and enjoyment, allowing me to access happy childhood memories. Colourful paintings also portray a hopeful future.”
"Wonderful World" 24.5 x 19.5 inches, acrylic on paper
A noted colourist, he uses tints of the same colour to enrich certain areas. As the tints lighten, the softer colours appear to recede, adding the illusion of depth. For example, the strong royal blue in one area gradually fades to a subtle pastel hue. This multi-tinted blue area was augmented with linework after the painting was completed. As the lines move closer together, a three-dimensional quality emerges.
The exhibition also includes a few 16-by-16-inch acrylic-on-board artworks. In “Blue Horizon” we see three children playing in a snowy landscape. The two larger figures are well defined by bright orange clothing. One figure shapes snow (defined by silver foil) and the middle figure throws a snowball. Humour and warmth give this scene a charming quality. While researching this article, I looked at many colour plates by Hannoon detailing his war experiences. The emotional impact of seeing the explosive chaos of bodies and buildings, blown apart by war, brought me to tears. That’s why I feel relieved and happy to see these intact figures, robust and full of life, enjoying a snowy day in Canada. “Yes,” agrees Hannoon. “Life experiences, whether happy or sad, can be portrayed in artworks. My thoughts and feelings are all within the paintings.” The horizon line in this painting appears to be pulled along by a perky blue bird.
Perhaps it is the mythical Bluebird of Happiness? For Hannoon and his family, that would be a welcome sight.
Hashim Hannoon's exhibit “City Life” runs June 8-28 at Madrona Gallery, 606 View Street, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com. An opening reception with the artist is on Saturday, June 8, 1-4pm.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.