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

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.

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.

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble