The clean and serene atmosphere in the Orfali Art Centre in the Jordanian capital of Amman is a far-cry from the subject matter depicted in the 30 paintings hanging on its walls. Each of them were painted by artist and Mosul native Khaleef Mahmoud and they showcase not only the experiences of his city and its people over the past three years, but also the place of beauty he knew the city to be before then.
Mahmoud’s work, consisting mostly of watercolour paintings, are stark in their duality. On one side, they depict Mosul as it used to be, vibrant colours depicting its streets, people, skyline and architecture, including many of its most famous landmarks. The vibrant look and feel of these pieces seem to recall happier times.
The other side depicts the pain and suffering of the city and its people under ISIS rule and the subsequent mass displacement. Art imitates life, after all. Mahmoud remained in Mosul when ISIS’ black shadow fell over the city in 2014, watching the militants desecrate his home and destroy many of its beautiful monuments that he had spent years admiring and painting. He only lasted three months before the militants put an arrest warrant on him, forcing him to flee to Turkey first, then Germany before ending back in Baghdad. The suffering of his fellow Iraqis during his trek has left an impression on him.
Mahmoud intends for his art to both be a love letter to the Mosul-that-was and the condemnation of the fate that befell it in 2014. He hopes that his audience will be impassioned by his paintings and his city healed.
Mahmoud is not alone in his pursuits. Since liberation from ISIS, many artists have used their craft to canonise the horrors they experienced under ISIS and express a desire for a better tomorrow. Some have taken to the streets to adorn the walls of Mosul with their vision while others worked ceaselessly to record the victims of the group, affording themselves the comfort of depicting things of beauty only following the militants’ demise.