Iraqi Artist Bassim Al-Shaker Brings Babylon Gallery to Roosevelt Row in Phoenix

Bassim Al-Shaker works on a painting.
Bassim Al-Shaker works on a painting.
Deanna Dent

A man named Bassim Al-Shaker sits inside a gallery on a swivel chair facing a small canvas set atop a wooden easel. He’s painting a circle the size of a dinner plate, filling it with flowing Arabic script, surrounded by walls dotted with a dozen or so works reflecting the breadth of his artistic impulse — the abstract painting of a nude woman, the hyper-realist portrait of a bearded man wearing a traditional Iraqi headdress, the slightly impressionistic rendering of an Arabian horse running free in the wind. 

Middle Eastern music wafts from a portable Bluetooth speaker on a long table, where Al-Shaker has neatly arranged baklava and other pastries on a round plate in case visitors stop by. Aside from dark olive pants and bright green socks, the 30-year-old artist is dressed all in black — wearing a fedora and sporting a carefully groomed mustache that curves up just a tad on each end, mirroring the smile he flashes when talking about his art.

Al-Shaker is far from his native Iraq.

It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon in Roosevelt Row, the once-scrappy, now trendy arts district in downtown Phoenix. Even as some decry its so-called gentrification, Al-Shaker is embracing this arts scene as his own — creating Babylon Gallery, named for his Iraqi roots, right in the middle of it all. He’ll hold a formal opening during First Friday in September.

Walk the streets of Roosevelt Row, and you’ll encounter alleys littered with construction debris, sidewalks covered with pipe scaffolding, and orange cones diverting traffic in maddening ways. It’s all evidence of recent changes that sometimes make the trendy arts district feel a bit like a battle zone. For nearly two years now, conflicts have raged between those wanting to preserve its current character, and those pushing ahead with new development. Even those with real solutions have been shot down. In January, the City Council approved creating a business improvement district similar to Downtown Phoenix Partnership, intended to improve the look and feel of Roosevelt Row. But Governor Doug Ducey signed a law that nixed the district before it ever got off the ground.

Despite a petition, protest march, and pleas before the City Council, developers Baron Properties tore down two buildings near the intersection of Roosevelt and Third streets to make way for one of two multilevel apartment complexes. When a giant metal claw tore down the building at 222 East Roosevelt in March 2015, the city lost the site of its first gay drag bar, and a beloved mural by local artist Lauren Lee. Paz Cantina, a popular eatery filled with more murals and local art, was torn down, too — making way for another development that’s yet to take shape. Commercial real-estate signs dot empty lots, and construction sites sport drab green mesh perimeters — as if that could hide the ugliness of what’s taking place there.

Some wonder whether an exodus might be taking place, after watching photographer Andrew Pielage leave Drive-Thru Gallery in Roosevelt Row for a new studio and gallery space in the Garfield district. Michael Lanier, whose plant shop The Bosque first opened inside the monOrchid on Roosevelt Street, is opening a second store in Garfield this fall, and may end up making that his sole location. Others are moving by necessity, not choice. Recently, Pappas Properties sold its building at Fifth and Roosevelt streets, where an iconic mural by El Mac and Augustine Kofie graces a wall outside Flowers Beer & Wine. Flowers’ owners say they’re staying, but moving to a different part of the building. Lotus Contemporary Art, Five15 Arts, Galleria Celtica, and Fifth Row Dance Studios have to be out by the end of August — some not yet knowing whether they’ll open somewhere else. 

Roosevelt Row has faced two years of chaos and uncertainty, even as artists have continued struggling to work and live there.

Enter Bassim Al-Shaker. 

He isn’t scared off by new developments, having faced situations far more frightening in Iraq — where he’s been physically assaulted for creating controversial work, including a harmless sketch of the famed Venus de Milo statue of a nude woman. 

In Baghdad, the problem isn’t new buildings going up. It’s bombs tearing buildings down. And that’s just the beginning of an artist’s woes.

Bassim Al-Shaker’s Babylon Gallery in Roosevelt Row.
Bassim Al-Shaker’s Babylon Gallery in Roosevelt Row.
Lynn Trimble

Creative expression nearly got Bassim (rhymes with “Possum”) Al-Shaker killed in 2007. Al-Shaker was a young artist getting ready to start college, but his paintings had already been exhibited and earned awards. He also owned a Baghdad barber shop, where he’d cut hair to make money, and often worked on sketches during breaks between clients.

As he recalls, one night five men dressed in black stopped by for haircuts. About 10 minutes in, one spotted his Venus de Milo sketch sitting near a water dispenser. Soon, the man was shouting — demanding to know who’d drawn it. Al-Shaker laughed, explaining that it was just a statue. But the man hit Al-Shaker, leaving his clothes covered in blood before disappearing with the others. Not wanting to worry his parents, Al-Shaker went home and washed away the blood, then decided not to tell them what had happened.

Something far worse soon followed.

Al-Shaker returned to the shop the next day, only to discover more than 20 men with guns, and about six cars with flashing lights, waiting there. They were members of the Mahdi Army, a militia founded by Muqtada al-Sadr in 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They blindfolded Al-Shaker, bound his hands behind his back, and shattered a giant mirror in his shop. Then they took him to a mosque, subjecting him to a series of violent assaults.

First, they took him to the center of an open courtyard filled with merchants selling fruits and vegetables. At the time, Al-Shaker had long black hair that landed just past his shoulders, which his captors gathered like a ponytail behind his head. Then, using scissors stolen from his barber shop, they sought to humiliate Al-Shaker in front of a crowd circled around him. They sliced off the bundle of his hair before taking him to a room inside a nearby mosque, where they told him to choose between three oil drums placed side by side. With both his feet and hands bound, Al-Shaker chose the middle barrel.

Tears well up in his eyes years later as he recounts the tale, his normally calm, soft-spoken demeanor punctuated by the rising volume of his voice that reveals how deeply the experience still haunts him.

The drum was filled with objects of torture, including heavy chains and baseball bats used to beat Al-Shaker. “After five to seven minutes, I couldn’t feel anything,” Al-Shaker says. “I passed out.” When he finally regained consciousness, he saw his family standing around him. “I thought I’d died,” he says. “It felt like another life.”

Most people wouldn’t have made it out alive, Al-Shaker says.

But someone who’d witnessed Al-Shaker’s kidnapping called his family, and one of the artist’s seven uncles knew someone who could get him released. A few days later, members of the Iraqi and U.S. military went to the mosque, taking those who’d tortured Al-Shaker to jail. Al-Shaker spent two weeks recuperating in a Baghdad hospital, but got a call soon after his release inviting him to show his paintings in Cairo.

Since then, he’s exhibited work in several additional cities, including Baghdad, New York, London, and Amman, Jordan. But it was an exhibition at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2013, where Al-Shaker was one of several artists showing in the Iraqi Pavilion, that really changed the young man’s life.

 

 

Bassim Al-Shaker stands in front of an exhibit of his work at Bentley Gallery.
Bassim Al-Shaker stands in front of an exhibit of his work at Bentley Gallery.
Sean Deckert

While in Venice, Al-Shaker met Gordon Knox, director for the Arizona State University Art Museum — a contemporary art museum with a global perspective that is known for exhibiting works in all media by emerging and established artists.

Knox first learned of Al-Shaker through Rijin Sahakian, who founded the international Sada (Echo) initiative focused on contemporary Iraqi art.

“I was taken by his work as a painter, as an artist,” Knox says. Many of Al-Shaker’s works convey with stunning realism the everyday people and places of southern Iraq, although his oeuvre also includes abstract paintings. 

“Bassim’s work is sublime, gentle, and deep,” Knox says. “His story came later, and that as well is deeply moving and significant.”

Knox later invited Al-Shaker to participate in ASU Art Museum’s International Artist Residency Program at Combine Studios, then headed by artist and Roosevelt Row co-founder Greg Esser, who was also deeply moved by Al-Shaker’s story.

“It’s shocking that someone practicing an art form should have his life threatened by that act,” Esser says. “It’s such a contrast to the United States, and so disturbing.” Calling Al-Shaker one of the Middle East’s strongest painters, Esser likens the artist’s abuse to someone breaking Beethoven’s fingers.

The artist-in-residence program brings artists from various countries to live and work for a time in Phoenix. During Al-Shaker’s residency, he lived at Combine Studios, which is owned by two of Phoenix’s best-known artists, Carrie Marill and Matthew Moore, both represented by the prestigious Lisa Sette Gallery.

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The program has hosted some impressive artists through the years, including Portuguese multimedia artist Miguel Palma, British multidisciplinary artist Clare Patey, and Brazilian conceptual artist Bruno Sousa.

While here, the artists create new work, interact with ASU art students, give public lectures, and explore ideas within a cultural context that’s often far different from their own. For Al-Shaker, it included working with art students at ASU’s newly-opened Grant Street Studios, located in the Phoenix warehouse district, and presenting an exhibition titled “To sleep, with life …” at Combine Studios.

Knox says he was motivated in part by the impulse to protect Al-Shaker from further violence. It was clear he couldn’t go back to living in Baghdad, Knox says. But he was also impressed with the young artist’s work. “He’s an astoundingly accomplished painter, who makes incredible use of color and stroke.”

Al-Shaker started painting as a child, graduated from a five-year arts high school, and earned his BFA from the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. Knox describes him as “a really growing, thinking, exploring painter.”

Yet for all his creative talent, Al-Shaker felt he lacked one essential skill.

He came to America knowing only a handful of English words (basically “yes,” “no,” and “hello”), and how to count from one to 10. “It was so hard not having the language,” Al-Shaker says. He started out using a translator, and took a basic English class at ASU, but says he picked up far more English-language skills during conversations with friends and colleagues. Today, he’s nearly fluent, although he still uses hand gestures now and then when the perfect word escapes him.

Al-Shaker arrived here on a temporary visa in 2013, but became a legal permanent resident in 2014 with the help of immigration attorneys at Fragomen, an international law firm based in New York that has a Phoenix office. That means he’s free to live and work in America as long as he’d like. Despite missing his family — they continue to live in Baghdad — he’s certain he’ll never return there. 

“I’m never going back to the Middle East,” Al-Shaker says.

Still, his new life in Arizona hasn’t been perfect.

For several months in 2014, Al-Shaker used a studio space at Fourth and McKinley streets, where Nancy Hill operated Gallery Hazel before relocating her Hazel & Violet letterpress printing business.

One night that August, someone broke into that studio and stole 10 of Al-Shaker’s paintings. He reported the incident to police, but none of his paintings were ever recovered. “He didn’t expect that in America,” Hill says.

“That was a very hard time for me,” Al-Shaker says.

It wasn’t just the stolen paintings that brought him down. He had yet to find a job; he knew ISIS was active in Iraq; and he continued to worry that his family was in danger from attackers who blamed him for their jail time. “Everything was going wrong,” Al-Shaker says. “It felt like the last days of my life.”

Several people helped to turn it around.

Esser reached out to Bentley Calverley, the gallerist who moved Bentley Gallery from Scottsdale to Bentley Projects in the Phoenix warehouse district many years ago. Calverley offered Al-Shaker studio space, which he used for several months in early 2015. “He was able to produce a good size body of work there,” Calverley says. “His skill is so absolutely incredible.”

Calverley praises Al-Shaker’s ability to both get all the features right, and convey the personality of the person he’s painting. “Looking at the eyes on his portraits, you know exactly who these people are,” Calverley says. “There are very few people with that degree of talent.”

Although the gallery typically doesn’t show figurative work, she turned it over to Al-Shaker for an evening that May so he could present a show featuring portraits of people who’d helped him make the journey, both physical and emotional, from Baghdad to Phoenix. The exhibition was titled “I Saw You in My Dreams.”

For Al-Shaker, the exhibition was a way of saying thank you. People rendered by his paintbrush for the show included Esser, Knox, Calverley, and several others. Al-Shaker’s decision to hold an exhibition meant to honor and thank his supporters reinforced something Calverley already surmised about the soft-spoken artist. “He doesn’t have a prima donna bone in his body,” Calverley says, adding, “Bassim is thoroughly genuine, and he appreciates everything that people have done for him.”

That’s not always the case with talented artists, she says. 

“Bassim is just the nicest guy, and he really wants to give back to the community.”

Al-Shaker’s Life Upside Down (center top right) is included in ASU Art Museum’s “Encounter” exhibition.
Al-Shaker’s Life Upside Down (center top right) is included in ASU Art Museum’s “Encounter” exhibition.
Craig Smith/Courtesy of ASU Art Museum

It’s First Friday in Roosevelt Row, and even August’s triple-digit temperatures aren’t dissuading people from coming out for an evening of art exhibits and street performers. Al-Shaker presses the button on the small black remote control that opens the doors on either end of Babylon Gallery. Before Al-Shaker moved in this summer, it was home to Drive-Thru Gallery & Studio, the creative space Andrew Pielage operated before moving his photography practice to a little bungalow in the nearby Garfield district. It’s actually owned by Sixth Street Studios, a partnership that includes Esser and his wife, Cindy Dach, a local artist and small-business owner.

Now it’s got Al-Shaker’s own personal touch, including a rectangular flower bed with plants that lend a Mediterranean feel. A sculpture with repeating curves stands between the entrance to his gallery space and an adjacent space he keeps private, which has essentials like a small kitchen area and bathroom. It’s all located off a small courtyard shared with the neighboring 1Spot Gallery. But 1Spot is closed on this particular night, so Al-Shaker is getting all the foot traffic.

Al-Shaker stands near a table he’s covered with a white tablecloth. On it: a three-ring binder filled with photographs, biographies, and articles neatly arranged in clear page protectors. They feature not only Al-Shaker, but also several other artists from the Iraqi Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Some visitors flip through it. Most linger instead over paintings hanging on the gallery’s two long walls.

Most are by Al-Shaker, but two were painted by a good friend from Iraq named Khairy, who’s now in Turkey. Only those who look carefully notice that not all of Al-Shaker’s paintings are signed. He’s been hesitant to sign his works in the aftermath of the 2014 art theft, hoping to dissuade those who think taking a painting bearing his signature would be a good way to make a fast buck. Sometimes he adds a signature using a name other than his own. “It’s not that unusual in the art world,” Calverley says. Typically, artists do so because they want to experiment with a new technique or assure their work is judged on its merits rather than their reputation, she says.

Although a local graffiti artist painted the north- and west-facing exterior walls of the gallery before it became Babylon Gallery, Al-Shaker plans to give his new space the personal touch. He’s creating a mural for the gallery’s front entrance off the courtyard, but he’s taking his time making it happen so the big reveal will add excitement to his formal gallery opening in September. “It will be something completely different from any of the other murals in the area,” Al-Shaker says.

Back in Baghdad, Al-Shaker used to paint 14 to 17 hours a day. But nowadays, he’s painting just two or three hours a day, typically working on one piece until it’s completed before moving on to the next one. He’s got other commitments, including teaching at Phoenix College and The Art Institute of Phoenix. And he has a girlfriend; they met last year during a trivia event at Crescent Ballroom. 

But he’s also got more serious pursuits, including applying to some of the country’s top graduate programs in art. His first choice is Yale, but he’s also interested in schools in New York and Chicago. Despite having high praise for ASU, Al-Shaker says its School of Art isn’t on his list because he’s eager to experience different parts of the country.

He’s not sure yet when he’d start, but he’s keeping the application ball rolling. Graduate degrees aren’t considered nearly as essential in Iraq as they are here, Al-Shaker says. “In the United States, everyone asks me where I went to graduate school.”

Still, grad school can’t be top of mind just now. Al-Shaker says he’s too busy worrying about his parents, who still get threatened by people convinced he’s the one who called the police after his mosque episode. They’ve moved more than once, most recently within just the past few weeks after their home was riddled with gunfire.

Soon, Al-Shaker will begin working in earnest on a new series of large-scale paintings that explore the intersection of extremism with gender, race, religion, and other aspects of identity. His friend and manager, an Iranian American curator named Ellee Bokharachi, who works with Tilt Gallery, is keeping an eye out for exhibition opportunities. She’s hoping to place Al-Shaker’s new works, which will be far more conceptual than his other works, in a gallery show or museum collection.

Those watching Al-Shaker’s career should be ready for change. It’s likely that the artist’s work will evolve over time, Calverley says. He’s a relatively young artist, and the graduate school experience will certainly influence the direction of his work. 

Bassim Al-Shaker.
Bassim Al-Shaker.
Deanna Dent

Al-Shaker has been in Phoenix long enough to see major changes happening in Roosevelt Row, and to form thoughtful opinions about its future — which he expresses with a positive, hopeful rather than bitter, cynical tone. 

He’s fine with a few tall buildings, but doesn’t want them to dominate the urban landscape. “We don’t need building after building after building,” Al-Shaker says. “I would rather it was more open.”

Like other artists, he’s got a mental wish list of things he’d like to see happen in Roosevelt Row. More galleries, kept open more often. More galleries showing new works, and more diversity in the types of work being shown. Plus, more high-quality work.

Al-Shaker envisions a Roosevelt Row imbued with a marketplace or festival-type atmosphere, where musicians play on outdoor stages and activities activate the area on a regular basis.

It’s not the job of just a few, he says. “We need everybody to help, because it’s everybody’s city.”


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