Iraqi-born artist Bassim Al-Shaker recently moved into a new studio and gallery space in Roosevelt Row, and will present his first exhibition there on August 5, during Phoenix’s First Friday art walk. He's calling it Babylon Gallery, which references his Iraqi roots.
Until recently, the space located at 918 North Sixth Street was home to Drive-Thru Gallery & Studio, which Phoenix photographer Andrew Pielage left to open a new gallery and studio in the Garfield Historic District just east of Roosevelt Row.
Al-Shaker first came to Phoenix in 2013 as part of ASU Art Museum’s International Artist Residency at Combine Studios, after facing violence wrought by individuals in Iraq who objected to his work – something he recounted in detailed for an article in the New York Times.
ASU Art Museum director Gordon Knox suggested that Al-Shaker participate in the artist residency program after seeing his work at the 2013 Venice Biennale. In the university’s announcement about Al-Shaker’s arrival, Knox describes him as “an extraordinarily talented artist at the beginning of his career.”
Even in Phoenix, that career has been marked by challenges.
In August of 2014, ten of Al-Shaker’s paintings were stolen from the artist’s studio space at Fourth and McKinley streets, where Nancy Hill’s Hazel & Violet was located before her move to the historical Bragg’s Pie Factory building in the Grand Avenue arts district.
Despite that experience, Al-Shaker decided to make Phoenix his home.
“Some people thought I wouldn’t come back because my art was stolen,” Al-Shaker says. But he knows better than to fault an entire city for the actions of just a few. “There are bad people everywhere in the world now.”
Today, Al-Shaker is teaching at Phoenix College and The Art Institute of Phoenix – as well as working on two new bodies of work.
He’ll show one, comprising primarily abstract modern paintings, at his new gallery. He’s hoping to show the other, which features “big paintings about big ideas” including extremism in contemporary culture, in a museum or other gallery setting.
The artist also creates lighter fare.
During upcoming Arabian horse shows in Scottsdale and Las Vegas, he’ll present paintings of horses, which have long been popular subject matter for artists with Iraqi roots.
“I don’t like to stay with one style, painting, or technique,” Al-Shaker says. “I like to try to do different things.”
Al-Shaker will show his own works at his new Phoenix gallery, which he expects to have open for First Friday and Third Friday art walks. He’s planning a formal opening celebration for this fall, but hasn’t yet settled on a date.
Clearly, he’s excited about being in Roosevelt Row. “I love, love, love it here,” Al-Shaker says. “You don’t have any idea how happy I am.”
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Al-Shaker says he feels safe living here, and vows he’ll never return to the Middle East.
But that doesn’t mean he plans to stay silent.
“I will talk about what has happened in the world and what the problem is,” Al-Shaker says of the large-scale paintings he’s working on now, which address violence committed in the name of religion.
“It’s my message and I need to send it,” he says. “I don’t care if they kill me or not.”