Bassim Al-Shaker is curating a new art space in Phoenix, the city he’s called home since immigrating from Iraq in 2013. It’s located inside the Green Leaf Arts District apartments at McDowell Road and Second Street, next to Phoenix Theatre and Phoenix Art Museum.
Dubbed Green Leaf Gallery, the space will open on February 1, during the city’s monthly First Friday art walk. The first exhibition will feature works by several Phoenix-based artists, including Colin Chillag, Bill Dambrova, Fausto Fernandez, and Abbey Messmer, to name a few. Al-Shaker’s work will also be part of the group show, and he’s planning a solo exhibition for March.
It’s the latest chapter in a long, dramatic story.
Al-Shaker fled Iraq after being tortured for drawing a nude female figure in a sketchbook. He came to Phoenix after catching the attention of Gordon Knox, who headed ASU Art Museum at the time. He’d seen the artist’s work, and learned of his personal plight, while exploring the Iraqi Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennial.
Al-Shaker became an artist in residence with the museum, creating work in a former Roosevelt Row art space called Combine Studios, which has since been sold. He’s had several creative spaces in recent years, including a studio at Fourth and McKinley Streets, where 10 of his artworks were stolen in 2014.
He had studio space at Bentley Projects in early 2015, and operated a small gallery space called Babylon Gallery in Roosevelt Row from August 2016 to February 2018. Now, he’s got studio space at Green Leaf apartments, where he serves as curator in lieu of paying rent.
Walking between his gallery and studio spaces, Al-Shaker grips one of the black key fobs residents use to access their apartment and Green Leaf amenities, appreciating the sense of security it engenders. “I feel very safe here,” he says.
The curator gig came together after Green Leaf bought the luxury apartment building from Broadstone Arts District, where Al-Shaker was part of an artist-in-residence program, in 2018. The new owners asked Al-Shaker to stay on, and made several changes he suggested for the art space, which was more of a casual gathering space than formal art gallery at that point.
Today, the artist is busy with finishing touches like adding gallery lighting, and getting artworks ready to hang. They’ll include pieces by students who’ve studied art with Al-Shaker in recent years. He’s wondering whether to preview a new series of his own work, comprising painted canvases cut into strips set slightly askew atop gallery floors, knowing they could be overrun by First Friday crowds.
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The gallery has a large garage-style door off McDowell Road, which will be open during First and Third Friday art shows. There’s also a small courtyard, so gallery visitors can flow between indoor and outdoor spaces. A bright yellow “A” sculpture near the gallery’s entrance will be replaced in coming weeks by a local artist’s work, but Al-Shaker isn’t sharing the artist’s name just yet.
He’s laser-focused on getting everything just right for opening night, and thinking about the bigger picture of the area’s evolving arts scene. It’s taken several hits in recent years, as developers have displaced or torn down art spaces to make way for apartment buildings and commercial spaces. And tragedy struck in October 2018, when two artists were murdered while walking home from work in Roosevelt Row.
Al-Shaker hopes the new gallery will help to highlight the creative talent within the city's shifting arts landscape. “There is a lot of art in Phoenix,” he says. “I want to show the best of the best.”