Iraqi Artist Finds Refuge in America

By Christina Sturdivant on December 20, 2013

Iraqi artist Ahmed Alkharki at Hill Center.  Photo courtesy of the artist.
Iraqi artist Ahmed Alkharki at Hill Center. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“My relationship with art is long,” said Ahmed Alkarkhi.

His current exhibit at Hill Center represents a journey rooted in artistic exploration and inexplicable struggle, after being forced to flee his homeland.

The Iraqi artist saw his first painting at the age of six. Intrigued by the difference between photography and artistic representations, he decided that he wanted to become a painter. 

“They said it was difficult. I tried and it was hard. I didn’t have the knowledge and I got frustrated, but in elementary school I began to buy books and postcards with art representing every type of painting,” he recalled. “When I studied art at the university, my professors appreciated my level of ability and worked closely with me.”

Alkarkhi’s first major exhibit was within the first year of his university graduation. The well-known, full-time artist flourished in Baghdad until his livelihood became threatened, igniting his passage to America in 2006.

One of Alkharki's more traditional landscape pieces.  Photo courtesy of the artist.
One of Alkharki’s more traditional landscape pieces. Photo courtesy of the artist.

On the outset of his escape from Iraq, he received reports that artists were being targeted by extremist groups, which led to the killings of many of his artist friends. To protect his wife and two children, he relocated his family to Syria.

“Those who live there have no guarantee they’ll be alive after a week,” said Alkarkhi of those who have yet to make it out of the terrors of his birthplace. “The government is not stable, everybody carries weapons, militias do what they want and people steal from each other,” he continued. 

His relocation to Damascus fostered a life of ambiguity as he continued his work as a full-time artist. After exposure to more of the art world, he began experimenting with abstract painting—up until this point, he was most famed for his vivid depictions of Iraqi landscape and portraits.

He learned to perfect various mediums including portraits, landscapes, modern and abstract paintings at the same level. And with each exhibit, he is sure to incorporate watercolors, acrylic and oil.

“There are people who like art in each of these mediums, so I always have something that everyone will like,” he says.

In the course of 3 years in Syria, Alkarkhi sold 240 pieces.

The new form of art not only expanded his range as an artist, but allowed for presentations of more interpretive works.

One learns from the different views of others,” he said, “especially in the field of art. Art is not only paint and canvass but it is a way of communicating.”

His art spoke on various platforms in Damascus—in galleries, symposiums and competitions. Most notably, he was selected for several exhibitions at the French Cultural Gallery.

Amidst much success, he was constantly concerned with the precarious nature of his stay in Syria, which depended upon a residency permit that had to be renewed every three months. Renewal was dependent upon the Syrian government and was never guaranteed.

Alkharki has been experimenting with a new expressive series.  Photo courtesy of the artist.
Alkharki has been experimenting with a new expressive series. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Fortunately, his artwork grabbed the interest of an influential woman who would eventually vouch for his entry into the United States.

“She was very taken with my work and she made the request to the UN for me to be accepted as a refugee,” said Alkarkhi. 

One of very few artists to be selected into the U.S. as a refugee, special accommodations were arranged for the travel of Alkarkhi and his family and they arrived in America in 2009.

Alkarkhi is still settling in to a life of proportionate constraints and freedom in his new homeland.

Creating a life of stability through art has been most challenging, in part due to the lifestyle difference in America. In his previous, simpler life, Alkarkhi was without a car, and many possessions akin to first-world countries. In the U.S., he has learned how to drive and now pays car insurance, rent and an accumulation of bills to support his stay-at-home wife and children.

This weighty cost of living, he believes, places the purchase of art trailing behind a list of more indispensible needs for Americans. Over the past 3 years, he has sold less than 100 pieces and has been forced to work full-time in maintenance, struggling to find time to paint.

Moreover, the art scene in America has proven to be much more open and fluid than in other countries, so Alkarkhi has encountered a broader range of competition.  But despite an unfamiliar playing field, he is slowly gaining notoriety as an artist in the DC area.

Alkarkhi’s most gravitating works for Americans are those depicting his homeland. His fond memories of Iraq create images that show the war-torn country in a light undisclosed to outsiders.

His first public exhibit in DC at the Foundry Gallery in 2009, entitled Baghdad Memories, was marked with the palm trees, rays of sunshine, tropical foliage and sparkling waters of Iraq.

This exhibit was followed-up with a second at the Foundry Gallery in 2010, entitled Baghdad Revisited. In September 2010 the Jerusalem Fund Gallery hosted his exhibit, Memories Revisited.

“Any artist has to remember his previous life,” he said. “I lived in my country for roughly 30 years.”

He has memories of painting at the edge of the countryside with friends.

He has memories of competing with fellow classmates while studying at the university. Those were “the most beautiful days.”

Finding bliss in his current location has afforded him further recognition. 

In 2011, competing with 350 artists, Alkarkhi won the Urquhart Award from The Art League Gallery in Alexandria, VA for his painting, ‘DC Kaffee Freedom’ in the Emancipation and Freedom exhibit. The painting of men and women conversing in a coffee shop was inspired by a newfound liberty that would have been silenced in Iraq.

“In my country, many people don’t have the freedom of speech and cafes are only for men,” he said. “In the U.S. you can criticize the government and everyone has freedom of expression.” 

In 2013, he was awarded again for his illustration of the states by The Art League. He received the Krekeler Brower Best in Show Award in the Scapes exhibit for his painting Landscape of Maryland, depicting the leafy grasslands of the state.

Alkarkhi credits much of his recent accolades to those who have helped him adjust in America. The Lutheran Church helped to facilitate his move and continued accommodations once he arrived. His interpreter, Majorie Ransom—a retired American diplomat who served in Syria and obliged Alkarkhi ‘s need for assistance at the request of a friend—has become of great value.  

“Marjorie opened the door and helped me get many exhibits,” he said. “If she’s not with me, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Although he misses the ability to practice his art daily, Alkarkhi is assured that life in America was the best choice.

“Here, there are guarantees and security, the education is free and very good and the future here is much better for my family. I know it’s hard, but I hope that I will indeed achieve success—I will exert my greatest effort to help my family and for artistic achievement.

I lost my country, but here I found a better life.”

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