PORTLAND, Maine — At the tender years when most children are delighting in the wonder of life, Adhem Ibrahim was dealing with death every day. Born in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein’s rule, he lived in a state of constant fear.
“Anyone could be wiped out at any time,” he said.
At age 7, he thought military tanks in the streets and dead bodies on the corner was the norm.
“I had seen so much death, I didn’t get it until I was 8,” said Ibrahim, a soft-spoken senior at Maine College of Art, who lives in Portland’s East End.
A soft, fuzzy creature showed him the way.
While fleeing his native land for Syria, his father, a journalist, was killed for writing about Hussein. Then, Ibrahim took comfort in an unlikely source: fluffy, yellow, baby chickens. The animals sold on pushcarts on the street became his security blanket — and a good deal more.
“I was raised by chicks. They taught me so much growing up about being gentle. They are a big part of the reason I am an artist,” said the 26-year-old, who sought asylum with his family in the states, living for a time in Maine and then Virginia. “That softness I was given in the middle of the chaos. I was their mother, and they were mine.”
Now they are his muse. His artistic emblem. His talisman.
Erin Hutton, director of exhibitions at MECA, invited Ibrahim to participate in a popup show in the school’s Institute of Contemporary Art gallery last month. He had four days to create what he wanted. A series of pastel chicks on paper and poetry emerged.
“That’s the type of passion and dedication we want to evoke,” said Hutton.
From Congress Street, the powerful yet innocent images immediately drew passers-by in. Though chicks were his lifeline, they didn’t appear in his work until a few months ago.
“The idea has been turning over and around. I am always thinking animals, animals, animals. I went from sheep, to wolves to lions,” he said.
Then chicks, embedded deep in his psyche, emerged as a potent symbol. They taught him how to grasp death.
“Chicks are engraved in my memory and to some extent shaped some internal aspects of myself. They symbolized life and death at once,” he wrote in an accompanying statement. “Life, because through them I resisted war and escaped the political front.”
In Syria, he left a cage where he kept his pets outside on a hotter than usual day. One chick shielded another from the unforgiving Syrian sun. They both died. That’s when it hit him. What he had been witness to was death.
Drawing chicks helps process the pain.
“I want to lure the viewer in thinking they are going to see something soft and beautiful, then slowly feed them the harshness of the reality,” told through his narrative artist statement. But, he said, “I don’t want it to become scary. I want it to be big and beautiful, and motherly in a sense.”
Hutton is impressed by Ibrahim’s technique as much as his work ethic. He enrolled in the school’s MFA’s summer intensive, the first time a BFA student had done that.
“He is pushing himself in a way that most undergrads are not doing,” said Hutton. “He takes some risks.”
It’s a dedication he shares with his cousin, painter Ahmed Alsoudani. The 2005 MECA grad has become a global art star and blue chip painter. His solo show at the Portland Museum of Art Redacted in 2013 was a coup for a MECA grad.
The museum’s director, Mark Bessire, has called Alsoudani “a hero” to local art students.
“There is no doubt he’s become an ambassador of MECA,” he said at the time.
Ibrahim has interned with his cousin, and under his tutelage, he has become a stronger artist. The pair critique each other and are constantly “feeding off each other,” said Hutton, who recruited Alsoudani to MECA in early 2000.
“There are similarities in what they’ve gone through in life. Ahmed is a big influence and an important mentor to him,” she said. “They have a tight bond.”
But their subjects couldn’t be more diverse. Alsoudani paints dismembered body parts, bulging eyes, disembodied horror. Ibrahim’s chicks are warm and innocent.
“I enjoy the contrast between the subject, material and depiction. Whereas Ahmed’s subject and material is one and the same. You know the road he’s going down,” said Ibrahim.
What road Ibrahim will go down when he graduates from MECA this spring is unknown. He is applying for graduate school and hopes to get into Columbia University to study art.
“I want to push it as far as it can go, while maintaining the innocence and the softness and beauty of it,” he said.
Administrators such as Hutton “see something within him that’s extremely driven. I do see him going places. He is completely primed to excel in the field.”