It’s not often you see a look of total devastation on someone’s face, but that was the expression Bassim Al-Shaker wore when I met him at a bar in downtown Phoenix on Tuesday night. Escaping threats for his life, the Iraqi-born painter fled to Phoenix in July of last year, eventually obtaining refugee status and becoming a permanent citizen earlier this year.
But Bassim woke up Monday morning to discover the door to his downtown studio smashed. Ten paintings were stolen August 18, as well as a couch and some power tools, from Bassim’s studio on Fourth Street and McKinley. Bassim was using the studio space rent-free before the whole block is to be demolished at the end of the year.
Formerly a barber in Baghdad, Bassim was once blindfolded, spat on, and beaten by loyalists of Iraq’s Mahdi Army militia, who left the painter so battered he spent the next two weeks in the hospital. But what had Bassim done to attract their violence? He had drawn sketches of the Venus de Milo as part of an entrance exam at Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts.
Yeah, that’s right. Some tasteful nude sketches almost got this guy killed.
While his attackers were jailed for a few years, they were released last spring and quickly found Bassim. They chased him down the street, across rooftops, through alleys, and over fences. In a house behind an Iraqi Army blockade, the artist hid for almost a month in conditions he described as “like a prison.”
Rijin Sahakian, founding director of Sada for Contemporary Iraqi Art, once hired Bassim to manage the non-profit’s Baghdad division. When she heard where he was hiding, Rijin contacted Arizona State University's art museum director Gordon Knox, who helped Bassim join the university’s foreign residency program.
Bassim’s hyper-realistic oil paintings of bucolic life in southern Iraq have been exhibited internationally, including in the Iraqi Pavillion during the 55th International Venice Biennale in Italy last year. He would paint at night in Baghdad to avoid the chaotic roar of explosions, sirens, and traffic common to his war-weary hometown. He left one desert for another, falling in love with Phoenix, its blooming art scene, and his new neighbors, which is why the burglary has hit him especially hard.
The latest painting, created just a week before, was so fresh that no one even had time to photograph it. Featuring a red and green city landscape, it was also the first in a new stylistic direction for Bassim. “I love this painting,” he said painfully.
“When I come here, I know people in America are very good,” Bassim told me. “The city, amazing for the people, amazing. [They] help me, like me. I love these people… But when I saw yesterday for these people come in my studio, break my studio and [take] my painting, I know these are very different people.”
At the bar with Bassim was Greg Esser, director of ASU's International Artist Residency Program, who acts as a sort of mentor to the artist as he shifts to a full-time citizen. Greg tells me the 29-year-old painter has only been learning English since he came to the US, so he also works as somewhat of a translator, typing words like "suspect" into Google Translate.
Greg feels because of the stolen couch and power tools—things "that can be sold at a pawn shop or a second-hand store very easily"—the thieves didn’t realize the value of the stolen artwork, which is estimated at around $50,000. The burglars left Bassim’s art supplies alone.
“I’m not angry, I am just sad about that,” Bassim told me. “I don’t need anything. I need just painting, just I need relax, just I need sell my painting. This is my dream.”
I asked Bassim if he missed Iraq. His eyes watered. “It’s too much,” he said.
The Phoenix Police Department's Property Crimes Unit is requesting anyone with information to call Silent Witness at 480-WITNESS with any information.
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