Resilience: Esam Pasha

First Iraqi Artist to Register his Work with, Talks About Art, Iraq, War and Peace
by Anayat Durrani

Esam Pasha never considered himself a political painter. But when he painted over the first and largest mural portrait of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, covering it with his own mural of the history of Iraq, the world took notice.

“I painted over Saddam’s huge mural because Saddam used to have his murals made on big concrete walls standing on a plinth a few steps up,” Pasha told “So after the war they were defaced with mud and black paint and graphite. It looked bad and warlike, standing there with the marks of people’s anger and pain on them. For me it was time to rebuild the city.”

His 13-foot mural titled “Resilience” painted at the entrance of the Ministry of Social Affairs building in Baghdad took a full month to complete. Pasha says he wanted to use the mural to put something artistic and promising in the heart of Baghdad.

“It would be dangerous but also beautiful and inviting for others to do the same and start rebuilding the city,” says Pasha.

He said he proposed the idea to the Iraqi government and coalition along with his sketches and fees. Pasha received permission from the Ministry of Labor, the legal owner of the mural, but was paid by the U.S. military to paint the mural out of the discretionary fund provided to senior US commanding officers. He got to work right away, “removing the old portrait and replacing it with a beautiful mural of Baghdad as I expressed it with my brush.”

Pasha says he enjoys painting on such a large scale. In 2000, he created a panorama for the United Nations development program in Baghdad representing the history and civilization of Iraq.

Pasha was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1976. He received no formal art training and is completely self taught. He says he has always been interested in art since as far back as he can remember.

“I have always been reading, painting and researching about art and using colors and experimenting. I received my free study of art learning from professional artists,” says Pasha.

Pasha first began to show his artwork in Baghdad around 1996. Around that time he also began to regularly participate in the Iraqi state art center and private galleries. He says that by the end of the 1990s he had his artwork in a number of countries around the world including France, Austria, and the US.

“I belong to the Iraqi embargo generation of artists, which started to expose their artworks in the 90s, when Iraq was under siege,” explains Pasha. “The generation that researched and looked more for new materials to substitute for the ones that are regularly used around the world which were so hard to find in Iraq because of the embargo.”

Beyond art, Pasha has had a colorful background. He is fluent in French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Russian, and worked as a translator for the 101st Airborne Division and with a Florida National Guard unit ($5 a day, later $12) and taught Arabic to Western journalists. Pasha’s contact with Western journalists allowed him, while in Iraq, to dabble as a freelance journalist for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe. Pasha, who has a black belt in judo, is a 4-time national judo champion in Iraq and trained the new generation of Iraqi police officers. Pasha even recovered a painting by the famous Spanish artist Juan Miro worth more than $40,000 for $90 in an art dealer’s shop in central Baghdad. The painting was stolen from the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art, formerly the Saddam Center for the Arts, when Baghdad fell to U.S. troops in April 2003. Pasha is also a sous chef.

Pasha came to the US in June 2005 and is now living on the East Coast. He was able to come to the US in part through the help of an interested and influential American art dealer, Peter Hastings Falk, who had read about Pasha painting over Saddam’s mural and contacted him. Falk ended up buying “Tears of Wax,” a series of 27 abstracts made of melted wax crayons on the sleeves of classical music LPs. They were created at night during the 2003 bombings of Baghdad.

The 1980-88 war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf war, the sanctions, the 2003 Iraq war, the U.S.-led occupation and the ensuing and unresolved situation in Iraq has had a profound effect on Iraqi artists. All have had their own unique ways of expressing this in their artwork.

“The events and environment that I have been through affected my artworks, no doubt about that,” says Pasha. “But since the major events were political, I just let it flow and appear through my experience and never forced them into my artworks, because forcing them in would turn my paintings from works of art to a political statement. Expressing human feelings and emotions is what matters to me.”

In 2006, Pasha took part in a two-part exhibit called “Ashes to Art: the Iraqi Phoenix” held in SoHo at the Pomegranate Gallery in New York, which featured paintings and sculptures by Iraqi artists. Falk was curator of the exhibition, which featured Pasha’s “Tears of Wax” paintings. Pasha has since remained in the US where he continues to paint and exhibit his work.

“I toured a number of states and spend most of the time on the East Coast. I lived in New York City for few months until I got an art grant in The Griffis Art Center in Connecticut. After my time in the art center was over I stayed in Connecticut,” says Pasha. “I held a solo exhibition in the Branford House museum in Connecticut University. I also participated in a number of exhibitions in SoHo NYC.”

Next, Pasha is preparing for an upcoming exhibition at The Pomegranate Gallery in SoHo. He said it will be something totally new because he is planning to do an installation piece. However, the time and details of the exhibition have not yet been set.

“Also I am working on a book about Iraq. It will be one of a very few books written by Iraqis who have been there to talk about the events that they have seen live,” says Pasha. “So far, the Iraqi voice is not even heard. So this is my big project now.”

Pasha used to have a studio in Iraq but had to let it go a few months ago when he decided that he was going to try to stay in the US. He’s not sure when he is going to be back in Iraq, but says maybe someday to visit. He hopes there will some day be peace in Iraq and an end to the suffering of the people of Iraq.

“For the time being, it would be so dangerous for me to be in Iraq,” says Pasha. “I can say that for now I have a home and a studio here.”

Pasha is currently staying in the U.S. as an asylum applicant. He says he likes living in the US and has many friends, some of whom he met as a translator back in Iraq. He says he views American artists like other artists in the world and thinks the “artistic level here is great.” He added that he appreciates the diverse, multicultural society that America embodies and feels welcomed and comfortable in the US.

Falk told that Pasha is “still getting his footing here in the US” as he is awaiting approval from the US government on his legal case for political asylum.

“If positive, he will be able to secure a job, probably as a much-needed Arabic translator, and then work on his art at the same time,” says Falk. “Esam has some interesting concepts for turning some of his paintings, such as ‘Dreams in a War Zone’ with the flying coffin, into a performance art piece where the flying coffin is opened and white peace doves fly out into the city.”

Pasha is the first Iraqi artist to register his artwork with Like other artist-members, he now has an online portfolio and a permanent record of his artwork.

Pasha is the first Iraqi artist to register his artwork with Like other artist-members, he now has an online portfolio and a permanent record of his artwork here:

“I think is very beneficial for both artists and spectators,” he says.

Anayat Durrani | January 31, 2007

Read the series:
Iraq’s Forgotten Modern Art
Introducing Iraq Contemporary Artists
Starting Over: Exiled Iraqi Artist Ghassan Ghaib
Resilience: Esam Pasha – First Iraqi Artist to Register his Work with

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