Iraqi artist takes devotion to extreme, painting Hussein using his own blood

November 07, 1990|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,Chicago Tribune

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In a city where displays of devotion to President Saddam Hussein are both commonplace and required, Nadith Saadi has found an original, if gruesome, way of showing his love.

Baghdad is full of artists who spend their careers painting pictures of Mr. Hussein, the most popular subject matter for Iraqi artists. But Mr. Saadi, 31, is the only one who uses his own blood.

"It's much more difficult to paint in blood than in oil, because the blood dries very fast, so you have to paint very quickly," he said proudly. "I have to finish each painting in five minutes or the blood becomes too thick to use."

Mr. Saadi, a gentle, handsome man who dresses in arty denims, has been painting pictures in blood for only about 18 months, but already his unusual occupation has earned him considerable fame in Baghdad through newspaper articles and a TV show. He has had three meetings with Mr. Hussein.

On the first occasion, Mr. Saadi was speechless in Mr. Hussein's presence, he recalled. "I did not speak at all because tears were falling from my eyes, I was so very, very happy."

At the third meeting, he was a little bolder. "The president asked me if I needed money, and I replied, 'Any painter who sits in front of you, that is his gift,' " he said.

Mr. Saadi does not sell his paintings but gives them, in return for "donations," to ministries and other government offices. Judging by the number of Hussein pictures on their walls, they are all engaged in a fierce contest to display the most pictures of the president.

Last year, he took a traveling exhibition around Iraq. The paintings were snatched up eagerly by governors and dignitaries, he said.

Mr. Saadi had been painting pictures of Mr. Hussein since graduating from Baghdad's Institute of Fine Arts 10 years ago. Using blood occurred to him last year while he was watching Mr. Hussein on TV.

"I thought, what a great way to show him that I love him with all my heart," he said.

Since then, he said, he has painted 38 pictures in blood.

Every year, a contest is held among Baghdad artists for the best Hussein picture. The winner receives a medal and the honor of having his entry displayed prominently in the city. Last year, Mr. Saadi won.

The acclaim he has earned seems based more on his unusual choice of material than on artistic merit.

Using three brushes, he swiftly sketched a portrait of a man wearing an Arab headdress who bore a passable resemblance to Mr. Hussein. (Although it could just as easily have been Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman.)

He used pure blood for the outlines and diluted the blood with water to shade lighter areas such as the face.

When he had finished, Mr. Saadi proudly held up the sticky red picture.

"There," he said. "Now it is a bright red color. But when it dries, it will be a beautiful dark brown."

In the taxi back to the Baghdad cafe Mr. Saadi uses as a base, the drying picture began to give off a sickening odor.

"It's the only problem with my work," he said.

"Sometimes the smell of the blood becomes very strong, and it makes me feel ill."

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