Salim al-Dabbagh, the renowned Iraqi painter and printmaker, is one of a generation of artists who enriched the progress of modern art movements in Iraq dating back to the mid-1960s. Born and raised in Mosul in 1941, al-Dabbagh developed a love for the traditions of his hometown, a love which soon metamorphosed into a cultural pursuit. From 1958 to 1961, al-Dabbagh studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He was trained by a number of prominent modern Iraqi artists, including Jewad Selim, Faiq Hassan, Ismail al-Shaikhly and Khalid al-Rahhal. After obtaining his degree in painting, al-Dabbagh continued his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad from 1961 to 1965 where he was a member of the first graduating class. The faculty included modernist artists Roman Artymowski from Poland who worked with engraving and printmaking, and Burkow Lazsky from Yugoslavia, known for his mural paintings. Though trained in purely classical and realistic artistic techniques, al-Dabbagh and some of his fellow students manifested their initial daring attempts to experiment with semi-geometric compositions and artistic abstraction.
The Iraqi art critic May Muzaffar states that al-Dabbagh had no established relationship with art in his childhood. However, when he came across some photographs of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, he became fascinated, if not entranced, with their aesthetic features. Nominating Van Gogh his first “master,” al-Dabbagh’s delved into the unknown, a new world that paved the way for his artistic journey.
Adopting an audacious attitude towards creativity and experimentation with abstraction, al-Dabbagh was one of the founders of the “Innovative Group” of artists in 1965, inaugurating it with his first exhibition in which he presented a number of abstract paintings. Along with al-Dabbagh, the “Innovative Group” included Ali Talib, Saleh al-Jumaiei, Taleb Makki, Nedaa Kazim, Faiq Hassan, Sobhi al-Jarjafji and Taher Jamil. They all participated in their first collective exhibition which was held at the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad. One year later, Amer Al-Obaidi, Khaled al-Na’ib and Ibrahim Zayer joined the “Innovative Group,” and participated in their second collective exhibition at the Iraqi Artists Association in Baghdad. In response to the June 1967 Naksah (crisis), the “Innovative Group” participated in a collective exhibition of political posters entitled “Resistance,” declaring an “intifaadah”(uprising) against what was believed to be “old traditions and concepts.” This was the last show organized by the group as most of its members soon afterwards travelled to pursue their education overseas. In 1966, al-Dabbagh received an Honors award from the Leipzig International Art Exhibition on Acrylic Art, Germany. In 1967, he was one of three Iraqi artists, along with Hashim Samerchi and Rafa Nasiri, to be nominated by the Iraqi Artists Association (IAA) to receive a two-year scholarship granted by the Gulbenkian Foundation to study graphic design at the Gravura Atelier in Lisbon, Portugal.