Another major work by Kadhim Haydar is "The Hands" (1956), which depicts a group of impressively built male workers and a child, and which was shown in the historic exhibition of the Iraqi Artists Society held at the Royal Olympic Club in Baghdad under the patronage of King Faisal II in 1957.

"The Hands" 1956, by Iraqi artist Kadhim Haydar (photo: Waddah Faris, courtesy of: Dia Azzawi)
Inspired by the suffering of Iraqi labourers: Kadhim Haydar's "The Hands" portrays the humble worker as a hero, with well-developed musculature, chiselled features, impressive poise and the courage to look everyday adversity in the face

Syria's Leila Nseir (b.1941) put women front and centre in all her works, including a rare depiction of a woman martyr in her work The Nation (1978) being carried by a group of women and men. When it came to workers, Nseir depicted women as farmers in a field at dawn and close up portraits of women and men holding farming tools.

Palestinian artist Vera Tamari (b.1945) also portrayed Palestinian Women at Work (1979), a ceramic relief as part of a series of works showing working class women, while Tunisia's Safia Farhat (1924–2004), credited with revolutionising arts education in Tunis' Institute of Fine Arts, depicted fishermen and labourers in numerous works.

Artists and educators

Farhat's work both as an artist and as an educator, went hand-in-hand with her socialist politician husband Abdallah Farhat's activism in the liberation movement of the North African state. This phenomenon is repeated in Palestine, where art movements are often inseparable from the liberation movement, and the depiction of workers becomes a central theme, in posters such as Arms of the Workers Protect the Revolution published in 1986 by the Palestine Martyrs Works Society (unknown artist).

Numerous Gulf artists who studied in Egypt also took to portraying workers, including Kuwait's Abdullah Al Qassar (1941- 2003) who painted a scene of shipbuilders in Luxor Port (1964). The discovery of oil in the Gulf also propelled a number of artists to depict labourers, in works like Saudi's Abdul Halim Al Radwi's (1939-2006) Extraction of Oil (1965) which was turned into a postcard by Saudi Aramco, and Oil Exploration (1953) by Bahrain's Abdullah Al Muharraqi (b. 1939).

Furthermore, some Gulf artists have attempted to depict Asian labourers to whom these states' economic prosperity owes a great deal. This was the case with Qatari Faraj Daham’s (b. 1956) Truck and Workers (2011) and more recently, with Emirati Asma Khoory's (b. 1994) installation Look Beyond Them (2018) which offers an audio-visual diary of South Asian blue collar workers who are rarely, if ever, present or represented in the elite art scene in the Gulf.

"Women Farmers", circa 1980, by Syrian artist Leila Nseir (photo: Ahmed Kasha)
Drivers of social, economic and political change: blue collar workers have been a focus for Arab artists since the 1950s. Women and men are generally shown side-by-side, performing the same tasks, and protesting for the same goals and causes. In many places, however, the dignity afforded them by art has yet to translate to real life; recently workers have frequently been left holding the short end of the stick

Almost coming full circle from the mid-20th century, and recalling what one journalist called the "iconography of the 1940s" is a 2017 concrete relief work by Morocco's Mustapha Akrim (b. 1981). The 200 cm diameter work titled Tools includes depictions of a shovel, saw, hammer, pliers, screw driver, mallet and a pickaxe, amongst other various instruments as a way to memorialise the unseen workers who are often hidden from society, especially in wealthier communities.

Since the 1950s, Arab artists have been depicting workers in paintings, sculptures, posters and more recently, in new media and installations. In most instances, women and men are depicted side-by-side, performing the same tasks, and protesting for the same goals and causes. Workers from different industries are not only painted as central figures, they are also depicted with dignity.

Over the past three-quarters of a century, workers have propelled social, economic and political change throughout the Arab world, yet in recent years, they have frequently been left holding the short end of the stick.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

© raseef22 2020

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