Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Asaad Zangana

Art from Karbala, Iraq to Boise, Idaho

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Currently, you can only view the depth and breadth of Asaad Zangana's artistic talent on the Internet. His Web site offers thumbnail images of oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings, ceramic vases, reliefs and murals. Zangana is obviously skilled in both traditional and abstract renditions of subject matter, as well as a number of stylistic variations in each genre. Perhaps most powerful are his dramatically composed scenes of Middle Eastern cities with buildings looming on either side, threatening to close in on those who pass beneath--women, dressed in full-length, dark-colored dresses that, with Zangana's ability to portray movement, seem to sweep through the streets like specters. Zangana has participated in public markets in Boise and Eagle, received several awards at the Western Idaho Fair and is looking for other venues to show his work, but it has been a long, hard journey from art school in Iraq.

After his release from prison, where he was tortured for two years for speaking out against Saddam Hussein, Zangana left his home in Karbala, Iraq, to join his brother in Boise. He did not speak English when he arrived in September 2000 and has since spent his time learning two hard lessons: the ironies and intricacies of the English language and the often impractical and impoverished nature of Boise's art community.

Zangana graduated from the University of Babylon in 1995 with a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts and an emphasis in painting. One of his professors, who recognized his talent for calligraphy, taught him to throw ceramic vases that could then be carved with intricate Islamic designs. This changed his artistic direction, and Zangana graduated from the University of Baghdad in 1998 with a Master's degree in Earthenware and Ceramic Arts.

Zangana was a member of the Fine Artists Society of Iraq, a competitive organization that requires artists to be comprehensively trained and widely exhibited before they are invited to join. He had successfully completed the second requirement with a number of exhibitions in Iraq, including the 1995 and 1996 National Babylon Shows, yearly exhibitions from 1988 through 1999 at the Modern Artist Show in Baghdad and seven solo exhibitions in Karbala, Babylon and Baghdad between 1988 and 1999.

Since coming to Boise, however, Zangana has struggled to find a supportive, organized community of artists. The language barrier initially impeded his communication with artists, galleries and other institutions, and he currently lacks the space and equipment to create ceramics in his home, a drastic change from the open studios available to him in Iraq as a member of the Fine Artists Society.

Zangana's latest project is a fine example of the slow adaptation process. Two years ago, Zangana began a 30-inch-by-40-inch ceramic relief of the Idaho State Capitol Building. It is an incredibly detailed and meticulously worked rendition of the building's façade with the Boise Foothills in the background. Unfortunately, it is as of yet unfinished as Zangana performs numerous tests of different glazes. In Iraq, Zangana created his own glazes using Iraqi ingredients. Here, he has to learn not only how to work with the clay and glazes available in the United States, but also the limited availability of public kilns for firing.

Zangana has also struggled to sell paintings of his favorite subject, the cities of the Middle East. He has found that most people want to buy pretty, green landscapes, not city scenes with camels. But he was heartened when, at the Art and Roses event in Julia Davis Park this year, one woman stood in front of his paintings and exclaimed, "Thank God! Finally! Something without mountains, trees or ducks." A little education goes a long way, and Zangana has found that his audience appreciates his paintings more when they understand them, and he has spent much of his time explaining the symbolism of the Middle East and imagery from Bedouin culture and tradition.

With Zangana's quickly advancing English ability, he is finding more opportunities and beginning to build a network of artist friends and supporters. He is still daunted by the reality of making a living, in a system and a culture so far removed from his own.

"In Iraq we have few artists, but they are very good artists. It's not easy to be famous in Iraq, but it's very hard to be famous in the United States," he explains. Zangana has the skill to make a run at fame, however, and the tenacity he has demonstrated both in Iraq and in the United States will hopefully keep him afloat as he transitions from being one of a few celebrated artists in his community to being one of the hundreds of talented and underemployed artists in the Treasure Valley.

You can see examples of Zangana's extraordinary ability in a variety of media at www.geocities.com/azangana. Contact him at azangana@yahoo.com.