Emad AlTaay is an award winning artist and refugee from Iraq. He was resettled in the UK in 2009 and has since opened a successful art studio in London. This is his story.
I first started painting when I was a child. My uncle was a talented artist; he’d never learned at school, but he used to paint the walls and ceiling at home; everything was his canvas. I suppose he first inspired me to pick up a paintbrush. I went on to become an art teacher; I used to work at the Baghdad Institute of Art and I had my own studio.
But everything in Iraq changed after the war in 2003.
At the time, there was a strict curfew and the militias were killing people. Most of the museums and art galleries closed and places that I used to go became very dangerous. I remember going down to the Tigris River with my friends to swim and sing. You can’t go there any more. You’d probably be killed.
I was specifically targeted by the militias because I was an artist and eventually I had to leave Iraq in 2005. I was in the middle of building my house and I had to leave my studio behind. I gave the keys to a friend and told him that I thought Iraq would need 15 years to get better. That was 10 years ago, and things are only getting worse. Iraq isn’t my country anymore.
I went to Jordan; I was lucky to get there; you have to be brave to leave. My family and friends are still in Iraq though. I would like to visit them but it isn’t safe. In two years, I have lost 42 relatives; my cousin was even killed because we have the same name and the militias thought he was me.
I was resettled from Jordan to in Sheffield in 2009. I had never been to Europe before. Prior to leaving Iraq in 2005, I had never travelled anywhere.
I had no friends or relatives in the UK. When I first arrived, I realised I didn’t know anything; everything surprised me. Britain used to be something I would see in films, but it’s completely different actually living here. Everything is different to life in Iraq; the weather, the architecture, even the side of the road people drive on.
My favourite thing about British life now is the culture of cooperation; when you smile, everyone smiles with you, and when you go somewhere, you hold the door until everyone has gone through.
After nine months in Sheffield, I moved to London and set up my own studio. That was the first step. When I moved to London I didn’t just want to live in London; I wanted to be something in London. I wanted to show the British people that I deserve to be here and to do that by being successful.
The five years I’ve spent in the UK have gone very quickly. Every day I learn something new here. My art now draws on a mixture of British culture and my own culture. London has added something to me; visiting the museums and galleries here completely changed me. Previously, I had taught myself about composition by looking at some of the pictures by well known artists, but then I came to London and saw those pictures in the flesh. I’m in paradise now.
When I first arrived, I could only say a few words in English; now I’m applying for citizenship and I’ve just passed my English test. I’ve also won awards for my art, and held three solo exhibitions. It’s not easy to achieve all of this in a new country. I’ve really built up my reputation here and overseas and I’m frequently invited to exhibitions and symposiums in Kuwait and Qatar, all expenses paid. I miss the UK when I’m abroad though; it’s my home.
I’m also working on a number of private commissions; some of them just need finishing touches. I’ll never be fully satisfied with them though; the end result never matches the picture in my mind, but I hope that my talent never catches up with my imagination.
I’m working on a new project at the moment called Dancing for Life. It’s a mixture of hyper-realism and expressionist technique, and it will show women dancing with horses in a range of unusual and bright colours.
I’m sometimes asked why I exhibit happiness when I come from a dark place. It’s because I’m looking to create happiness; I want to teach people how to smile. I won’t paint the blood or the killing; you can see that every day in the newspapers.
I was a victim in Iraq, but I can’t accept myself as a victim forever. I can’t change the world, but I can help other people who are suffering to leave that aside for half an hour while they look at my paintings and feel like they’re dancing. People shouldn’t be victims forever; there is peace somewhere and we can find it.
I want to say a big thank you to the UK, the Refugee Council and the Gateway Protection Programme. They gave me a second chance. There is no future in my country, but there is a future here. Britain is safer, for me and my art. I have found peace here.