After honing his painting skills as a soldier, an artist finds his voice

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, June 25, 2024

After honing his painting skills as a soldier, an artist finds his voice
The artist Samir Khurshid in Portland, Ore., where he has lived since arriving as a refugee in 2010, Sept. 28, 2020. In Iraq, Khurshid had to paint portraits of Saddam Hussein — in Oregon, he’s still painting, and his former life makes its way into his work. Ricardo Nagaoka/The New York Times.

by Alex V. Cipolle

PORTLAND, ORE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In Baghdad, on March 9, 2000, at the age of 22, Samir Khurshid completed his final mandatory portrait of Saddam Hussein for the Iraqi military. He cannot recall exactly how many portraits he painted in all, but the number, he estimates, is in the hundreds.

As far as Khurshid knows, not one of these portraits survived the fall of Hussein’s government in 2003. Khurshid says he even burned one himself.

“I feel terrible, but I did it,” he recalled in an interview, flashing a wide smile.

Now, 6,500 miles away in Portland, Khurshid, 42, still paints, creating tapestry-sized oil canvases featuring a freedom of content he never dreamed of as an artist in Iraq. His packed tableaus recall the frenzy of Hieronymus Bosch, bursting with elements that symbolize Khurshid’s former and current life: family allegories, critiques of militarizing youth and endless war and 9/11, American girlfriends, the purity and potential of newborns and a Noah’s Ark of anthropomorphized animals, rippling with virtue and vice.

His work has been included in group shows, and he recently received an arts grant from Oregon’s Regional Arts and Culture Council to finish a collection and exhibit it. He had hoped to organize that exhibition this summer in Portland, but the space he was in talks with closed to the public at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

While growing up in Iraq, Khurshid studied the old masters, such as Rubens and Caravaggio, and admired the enigmatic surrealism of Dalí. He strives to incorporate their techniques into his current work.

And Saddam Hussein still makes appearances, albeit in a less centralized way: You can spot a waving Hussein frozen in a stone relief in the background of “H-Hummingbird” (2014) and peering out of a dog’s rear end in “S-1, Samir” part of an ongoing triptych.

“I don’t hate Saddam and I don’t love Saddam,” he said. “I’m happy that I became a good artist because of Saddam. When you’re afraid, you push harder.” The military’s rigid standards helped improve his technique, he explained. “If not for painting Saddam, I wouldn’t be the artist I am today.”

From his studio in the Falcon Art Community, a creative hub of 25 artist spaces in the North Portland neighborhood, Khurshid tells his story, with his friend Önder Bahadirli acting as a translator when needed. Khurshid, whose first language is Turkish, spoke almost no English when he came to the United States; he continues to learn through courses at Portland Community College.

Khurshid describes himself as an enthusiastic artist from as far back as he can recall. He spoke fondly of his mother’s shooing him away from drawing on the walls when he was a small child. Often she found him asleep over a sketchpad, pencil still in hand. And while today he considers himself nonreligious, he was raised in a Muslim family that was supportive of his craft, despite that in Iraq figurative art can be seen as heresy.

“If we feed our children weapons, we give the world blood,” Khurshid said. “If we give a brush to kids, they will be artists.”

At 18, he was drafted into the military. When his superiors surveyed the soldiers, asking if they had special skills, he responded that he was an artist.

“They said: ‘You’re painting Saddam. You have to be careful. You have to be a good artist. Are you sure?’ ”

He was sure. They gave him a photo of Hussein, he said, and two weeks to complete a portrait as a test.

He passed the test, becoming one of Hussein’s many official portraitists. He joined a group of painters who churned out representations to be displayed in government buildings and public spaces across the country.

While Khurshid never met his subject, he painted his likeness many times — be it seated, riding on a horse or standing on a tank — and says he can still do it from memory.

Upon completing his military service in 2000, Khurshid returned to live with his family in Tuz Khurmatu. After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Khurshid supported himself by taking commissions for paintings from U.S. soldiers at the nearby Forward Operating Base Bernstein. He painted family portraits, beloved motorcycles and imaginary battle scenes. Accepting money from Americans, Khurshid said, made him a target of some of the local Islamist groups. To keep his family safe, he said, he had to leave.

“There were a couple times they tried to kill me, but I’m lucky,” he said.

In 2006, with help from family and friends, he escaped to Turkey, where the United Nations granted him refugee status. Except for a brief visit his two brothers made to Turkey, he hasn’t seen his family since he fled Iraq. His father died in Iraq in August.

This year is the 10th anniversary of his arrival in Portland, which he had never heard of before the United Nations placed him there as a refugee in November 2010. Khurshid became a U.S. citizen in 2017.

Brian Wannamaker, a Portland-based real-estate developer and the founder of the Falcon Art Community, provided Khurshid with a studio and an apartment for free after hearing about his arrival in the city through the local news. (Khurshid now subsidizes his rent by giving paintings to Wannamaker.)

“He’s a wonderful artist,” Wannamaker said, about the decision to invite Khurshid into the Falcon Art Community. “It was important for him to be around other artists and get a feeling of what American community is like.”

People in the city have embraced him, Khurshid said, donating art supplies and commissioning paintings and encouraging him to follow his artistic vision. In the United States, this vision has developed into frank examinations of politics, culture and religion.

“These things come between us and create distance from love,” he said.

Lara Mendicino, the chair of the English for Speakers of Other Languages department at Portland Community College and one of his oldest friends in Portland, explained that Khurshid was fearless and joyful.

“Nothing is scary for him. Nothing,” she said. While some people in the Portland art scene have advised him to paint smaller, more affordable works that align with the Portland market, Khurshid dislikes the idea.

“The size of the story he’s telling dictates the size of the canvas,” Mendicino said.

And Khurshid’s story is monumental.

After the interview, he sent an essay he’d written for an English class.

“I will be happy if the world understands the message of my painting, which is the lack of freedom and truth in my world and in my country, which is Iraq,” he wrote.

The essay is titled “A Born Artist.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

Today's News

October 28, 2020

Large, long-held Miro artwork to lead Stephenson's Oct. 30 Fine & Decorative Arts

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquires watershed work by Paul Sérusier

One of the Great Books of Ireland returned by Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement

Can fashion photography survive the pandemic?

After honing his painting skills as a soldier, an artist finds his voice

How New York's small cinemas are hanging on

Danish museum brings witch hunts to life

East Germany's love affair with Angela Davis

Artist Chris Santa Maria debuts "PRESIDENT TRUMP" (2016 - 2020)

Bertoia's to auction fine antique toys, trains & holiday antiques, Nov. 12-13

Italian mid-century design leads Phillip's London auction

Rare items signed by Marilyn Monroe, George Washington & Napoleon Bonaparte headline auction

Marc Chagall's show-stopping curtain offered at Bonhams New York

ART X Lagos postponed due to #EndSARS protests in Nigeria

High Museum appoints new curator of African art, Lauren Tate Baeza

Cauleen Smith named recipient of 2020 Wein Artist Prize

Susan Hendl, ballet master and dancer, dies at 73

Art advisor duo Alexandra Ray and Catherine Loewe present 'The Eye of the Huntress' at Le Petit Trianon

Clare Kobasa joins the Saint Louis Art Museum as assistant curator

Navajo blanket could bring $50K+ at Heritage Auctions

Art Brussels launches Art Antwerp

Clark Art Institute names Sarah Grandin as Clark-Getty Fellow

Balboa Art Conservation Center names new Executive Director

Say My Name, presented by US filmmaker Ava DuVernay opens today at Signature African Art

Online proactive risk-free browsing navigation

Top Skills to Highlight on Your Resume

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez
Writer: Ofelia Zurbia Betancourt

Truck Accident Attorneys
Accident Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful