May 23, 2010

He's on top of the art world

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

NEW YORK - Fifteen years ago, just a few months shy of his 20th birthday, Ahmed Alsoudani defaced a mural of Saddam Hussein in his Baghdad neighborhood.

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Ahmed Alsoudani, who grew up in Baghdad, fills his paintings with vivid colors and graphic imagery depicting his feelings about war in Iraq.

Bob Keyes/Staff Writer

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As with this painting, Alsoudani’s images, created on huge pieces of canvas and paper in oil, acrylic, charcoal and pastel, reflect the pain and turmoil caused by war. Viewers will see references to Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Goya.

Courtesy of the artist

Additional Photos Below

It was a youthful prank. Politics wasn't part of Alsoudani's vocabulary. He wasn't protesting anything.

But the consequences were steep. The Saddam regime was violent and unpredictable, and Alsoudani felt at risk in a city full of fear and threat.

A frightened teenager, he arranged for a final tea with his family, assuming he would never see them again, and quietly slipped away. He traveled by taxi to Kurdistan and eventually to Syria, where he lived four years before seeking and receiving political asylum from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.

Alsoudani eventually landed in the United States, made his way to Maine and found himself on a hot afternoon in August 2001 on Portland's Spring Street, staring up a long set of steps to the entrance of the Clapp House. At the time, Clapp was home to the admissions office of Maine College of Art.

Alsoudani spoke little English and had no portfolio to speak of -- just a few rough paintings he carried with him. But he wanted to be an artist, and MECA was his best hope.

Circumstance, fate and Alsoudani's stubborn nature brought him to that moment. He summoned the courage, stepped into the imposing Greek Revival building and announced in a humble, broken voice, "My name is Ahmed, and I would like to be a painter."

Not quite a decade later, Alsoudani -- now 35, fluent in English and living a dreamy international life -- was named to Forbes Magazine's "Watch List" as one of the most collectible emerging artists, and is a leading voice of visual expression from vanguard Middle Eastern artists.

His paintings sell for $70,000 each, and he has collectors all over the world. He counts among his patrons the most influential names in modern art, including mega-collector Charles Saatchi. He's been invited to show at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and is working on a private commission of a large painting for the opening for the Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, in 2011.



But it was a moment earlier this spring when Alsoudani realized that his dream of becoming a famous painter not only had come true, but had come true in wildly unimaginable ways.

Art-world royalty Francois Pinault, owner of Christie's auction house and of an art collection considered among the most valuable in the world, requested a private studio visit. It was one of those moments that caused Alsoudani to pause, catch his breath and steady himself.

"He's a big supporter of my work, and he came to my building in person," Alsoudani said during a recent interview. "That's a big deal for a guy who graduated from Maine College of Art."

That's a big deal for anybody.

Alsoudani's arrival as an international art star seemed destined. Right away, his work caught the attention of MECA's painting faculty, and in particular his first professor, Sean Foley, who encouraged Alsoudani's use of color and exaggerated, shocking images.

He came to Maine at a fateful moment in his own life and in the history of the modern world. A month into his Portland residency, terrorists attacked on U.S. soil. Revenge swept the country into war. A newcomer to America with dark skin and a Middle Eastern accent, Alsoudani stood witnesses to terrorism, suffered ignorance and intolerance, and watched helplessly as his chosen adopted country tore apart his native land. He recognized images of Baghdad neighborhoods on TV, and feared for his family's survival each and every day.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Courtesy of the artist

click image to enlarge

Ahmed Alsoudani, who grew up in Baghdad, fills his paintings with vivid colors and graphic imagery depicting his feelings about war in Iraq.

Bob Keyes/Staff Writer


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