When she was a child, Luma Jasim’s close friends and family knew her as Rassam, an Arabic word meaning the one who paints.
Today, as a refugee in Boise, Jasim still paints. The suffering of her family’s past, the terror she endured and the violence she saw find expression in a new exhibition at Boise State University.
As she walked through the small maze of her paintings on campus, she told an Idaho Statesman reporter about growing up in Baghdad during multiple wars, about fleeing the country after the U.S. invasion, and how her experience with war and international relations contributes to her art.
Finding her voice in the U.S.
Jasim and her family fled their home in Baghdad in 2006, three years after the U.S. invasion.
Jasim, 45, was born in Baghdad in 1975, five years before the start of her country’s eight-year war with Iran. For most of her life in Iraq, the country was in wars or under U.S. sanctions. After the U.S. invaded, Jasim said, “that was when we knew we could not keep living there.”
There was violence in Baghdad every day, Jasim said. She and her sister and brothers would kiss their mother each day before leaving the house, because they were never sure that they would return home at the end of the day.
By 2006, Jasim said no one knew who the enemy was. At first she said residents were concerned about violence from the government of Iraq. Later they worried about terrorists targeting people based on their religion.
For Jasim, the violence hit too close to home when one of her coworkers at a publishing company was taken and held for ransom. That was when she, her sister, four brothers and parents fled to Istanbul in neighboring Turkey, and eventually applied for asylum through the United Nations.
Jasim’s family did not get to select where they were relocated. Jasim said when her family was going through the asylum process she was hoping to be resettled in Europe to be closer to Iraq. They ended up in Boise, in 2008.
Aftercoming to the U.S., Jasim said, she realized she wanted to express the complicated emotions she was feeling since relocating. She began expressing herself through her art.
“I wanted to put my experience on canvas and work in different mediums,” she said inan interview.
Jasim was unsure where to get started in the art world in Boise, so she enrolled to earn a bachelor’s degree at Boise State University in visual arts. She had already received two degrees in Iraq, so she enrolled in upper division arts classes.
Richard Young, the now-retired art department chair at Boise State, taught Jasim in his upper division painting class. Nine years later, he said, he still follows her art and story.
“She was set apart by her passion for her work,” Young said by phone. “She was a nontraditional student whocame to a class of more traditional students. I think coming back to school gave her more passion and drive in her work.”
Young said he tried to encourage his students to bring their life experiences to their work. Some students struggled, but Jasim excelled.
“Her experiences in Iraq had an impact on her, and she brought a lot of that to bear in my class,” he said.
After she graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in visual art, she moved to New York to continue her education at Parsons School of Design at The New School, where she eventually got her master of fine arts degree. While in New York she completed artists’ residencies before moving back to Boise to continue her career.
Experiences in art
Jasim uses her art to explore her feelings and experiences involving violence and war.
“It is not something I go in knowing what I want to do,” Jasim said. “I let the process go, and every time I do something, I feel like I have a conversation with the piece, and after each step I slowly figure out what I want to do with it. Whatever is happening on the surface will inspire me on my next move.”
One painting in the Boise State gallery depicts a scene from Baghdad in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, prompting the first Gulf War. During the war, Jasim said, the homes in Baghdad lost power.
“The houses were pretty much boiling,” Jasim said. “Freezers and fridges were used as closets without power.”
Many wealthier families bought generators to keep their homes and appliances cold, Jasim said. Households with large generators would sell time with their generators, she said.
“We would pay just to keep the fan running,” she said.
The painting shows wires coming out from brick buildings, because Jasim said nearly every house had a wire coming from it and connecting to a generator.
In many of her paintings, Jasim uses images and overlays them with acrylic paint, charcoal or ink.
In another painting, “One Coin,” Jasim combines half of Saddam Hussein’s face with half of George W. Bush’s face and overlays the painting with acrylic paint to depict a bomb going off behind the faces. She also uses tar on the painting to represent oil.
In 2003, under President Bush, the U.S. invaded Iraq, looking to destroy weapons of mass destruction and end Saddam Hussein’s rule. The U.S. never found weapons of mass destruction, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war began.
“To me it shows two criminals who destroyed a lot,” Jasim said.
For Jasim, “war for me is the biggest crime that happens against any nation.” She said the U.S. invasion of Iraq was all based on lies, referring to the mission to destroy the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
“It is innocent people that have to pay for it,” Jasim said.
Politics play a role in all of Jasim’s paintings, because they played a role in uprooting her life, she said.
“(My art) always comes from the perspective of a person who had to leave her home and live in another continent far away,” Jasim said. “I had to understand a new culture and a new society with the memories of things I had to deal with. The reasons why I had to deal with those things are always political. It has to do with my government there and the government here.”
When Jasim isn’t painting she works as an Arabic medical interpreter for Saint Alphonsus Health System and a graphic designer for EverGreene Architectural Arts, a company based in New York.
Afghanistan withdrawal in an art performance
On April 14, President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan before Sept. 11. Then on Aug. 15, Taliban fighters took over Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and took over the government, prompting the president to pull U.S. personnel and Afghan allies out of the country.
The events in Afghanistan inspired Jasim to again take on issues of war and politics.
On Thursday, Sept. 2, Jasim hosted a collaborative performance at LED Boise at the corner of 15th and Grove streets. There she laid out two large white pieces of paper and dozens of paints. Local musician Ryan Garrett played guitar while Jasim recited lines of poetry between painting. Dozens of people gathered to listen and watch.
“Dear Afghanistan, I saw my story turn into yours,” Jasim recited. “I saw things changing with you badly every day. I thought for some time that I am just watching, but dear Afghanistan, I felt something like you, and I worry that I will feel what you feel now maybe in a year, or two, or maybe in 20 years.”
Jasim then went to the pieces of paper and dumped black and gray paint on one piece and smeared it across.
She again went to the microphone: “Dear America, can you ever finish one job? Can you ever learn from past experiences? Can you ever finish one job without sacrificing millions of lives?”
Young was at Jasim’s performance. He said he admires her ability to incorporate sound into her painting, making her work more complex.
Young said he has watched Jasim’s dedication and her diligence in pursuing new opportunities and putting herself out there for others to watch.
“She is an inspiration to other students at BSU and other artists in the community who get to know her,” he said. “She is committed to her art and that is wonderful for someone like me, who was her teacher and who has watched her ever since.”
Where to find Jasim’s artwork
Jasim’s installation, Long Term Vision, is on display in the Boise State Student Union Fine Arts Gallery. It is on the second floor of the union at 1700 University Drive.
The exhibition continues through Sunday, Oct. 3, and is free and open to the public.
People who are unable to visit the exhibition in person can view it digitally at boisestate.edu/finearts.
All of Jasim’s works are for sale.
She will be performing at Treefort Music Festival at 10:10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24, at LED Boise, as part of Artfort, an event within Treefort that features fine arts and performing arts. Jasim’s performance will be a collaboration with Blake K. Green, a Boise native touring artist.
All of her art work can be found on her website at lumajasim.com and on Instagram @Lum_arty.