This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.
PORTLAND, Ore. — In Baghdad, on March 9, 2000, at the age of 22, Samir Khurshid completed his final mandatory portrait of Saddam Hussein for the Iraqi military. He cannot recall exactly how many portraits he painted in all, but the number, he estimates, is in the hundreds.
As far as Mr. Khurshid knows, not one of these portraits survived the fall of Mr. Hussein’s government in 2003. Mr. Khurshid says he even burned one himself.
“I feel terrible, but I did it,” he recalled in an interview, flashing a wide smile.
Now, 6,500 miles away in Portland, Mr. Khurshid, 42, still paints, creating tapestry-sized oil canvases featuring a freedom of content he never dreamed of as an artist in Iraq. His packed tableaus recall the frenzy of Hieronymus Bosch, bursting with elements that symbolize Mr. Khurshid’s former and current life: family allegories, critiques of militarizing youth and endless war and 9/11, American girlfriends, the purity and potential of newborns and a Noah’s Ark of anthropomorphized animals, rippling with virtue and vice.
His work has been included in group shows, and he recently received an arts grant from Oregon’s Regional Arts and Culture Council to finish a collection and exhibit it. He had hoped to organize that exhibition this summer in Portland, but the space he was in talks with closed to the public at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
While growing up in Iraq, Mr. Khurshid studied the old masters, such as Rubens and Caravaggio, and admired the enigmatic surrealism of Dalí. He strives to incorporate their techniques into his current work.
And Saddam Hussein still makes appearances, albeit in a less centralized way: You can spot a waving Mr. Hussein frozen in a stone relief in the background of “H-Hummingbird” (2014) and peering out of a dog’s rear end in “S-1, Samir” part of an ongoing triptych.
“I don’t hate Saddam and I don’t love Saddam,” he said. “I’m happy that I became a good artist because of Saddam. When you’re afraid, you push harder.” The military’s rigid standards helped improve his technique, he explained. “If not for painting Saddam, I wouldn’t be the artist I am today.”
From his studio in the Falcon Art Community, a creative hub of 25 artist spaces in the North Portland neighborhood, Mr. Khurshid tells his story, with his friend Önder Bahadirli acting as a translator when needed. Mr. Khurshid, whose first language is Turkish, spoke almost no English when he came to the United States; he continues to learn through courses at Portland Community College.
Mr. Khurshid describes himself as an enthusiastic artist from as far back as he can recall. He spoke fondly of his mother’s shooing him away from drawing on the walls when he was a small child. Often she found him asleep over a sketchpad, pencil still in hand. And while today he considers himself nonreligious, he was raised in a Muslim family that was supportive of his craft, despite that in Iraq figurative art can be seen as heresy.
“If we feed our children weapons, we give the world blood,” Mr. Khurshid said. “If we give a brush to kids, they will be artists.”
At 18, he was drafted into the military. When his superiors surveyed the soldiers, asking if they had special skills, he responded that he was an artist.
“They said: ‘You’re painting Saddam. You have to be careful. You have to be a good artist. Are you sure?’”
He was sure. They gave him a photo of Mr. Hussein, he said, and two weeks to complete a portrait as a test.
He passed the test, becoming one of Mr. Hussein’s many official portraitists. He joined a group of painters who churned out representations to be displayed in government buildings and public spaces across the country.
While Mr. Khurshid never met his subject, he painted his likeness many times — be it seated, riding on a horse or standing on a tank — and says he can still do it from memory.
Upon completing his military service in 2000, Mr. Khurshid returned to live with his family in Tuz Khurmatu. After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Mr. Khurshid supported himself by taking commissions for paintings from U.S. soldiers at the nearby Forward Operating Base Bernstein. He painted family portraits, beloved motorcycles and imaginary battle scenes. Accepting money from Americans, Mr. Khurshid said, made him a target of some of the local Islamist groups. To keep his family safe, he said, he had to leave.
“There were a couple times they tried to kill me, but I’m lucky,” he said.
In 2006, with help from family and friends, he escaped to Turkey, where the United Nations granted him refugee status. Except for a brief visit his two brothers made to Turkey, he hasn’t seen his family since he fled Iraq. His father died in Iraq in August.
This year is the 10th anniversary of his arrival in Portland, which he had never heard of before the United Nations placed him there as a refugee in November 2010. Mr. Khurshid became a U.S. citizen in 2017.
Brian Wannamaker, a Portland-based real-estate developer and the founder of the Falcon Art Community, provided Mr. Khurshid with a studio and an apartment for free after hearing about his arrival in the city through the local news. (Mr. Khurshid now subsidizes his rent by giving paintings to Mr. Wannamaker.)
“He’s a wonderful artist,” Mr. Wannamaker said, about the decision to invite Mr. Khurshid into the Falcon Art Community. “It was important for him to be around other artists and get a feeling of what American community is like.”
People in the city have embraced him, Mr. Khurshid said, donating art supplies and commissioning paintings and encouraging him to follow his artistic vision. In the United States, this vision has developed into frank examinations of politics, culture and religion.
“These things come between us and create distance from love,” he said.
Lara Mendicino, the chair of the English for Speakers of Other Languages department at Portland Community College and one of his oldest friends in Portland, explained that Mr. Khurshid was fearless and joyful.
“Nothing is scary for him. Nothing,” she said. While some people in the Portland art scene have advised him to paint smaller, more affordable works that align with the Portland market, Mr. Khurshid dislikes the idea.
“The size of the story he’s telling dictates the size of the canvas,” Ms. Mendicino said.
And Mr. Khurshid’s story is monumental.
After the interview, he sent an essay he’d written for an English class.
“I will be happy if the world understands the message of my painting, which is the lack of freedom and truth in my world and in my country, which is Iraq,” he wrote.
The essay is titled “A Born Artist.”