Born in Samawah, Iraq, in 1925, Shakir Hassan Al Said studied social sciences at Baghdad's Higher Institute of Teachers, obtaining his BA in 1948. He initially worked as a teacher of Social Sciences at Malak Secondary Education, the Ministry of Education from 1949 to 1954 before studying painting at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad and teaching art education later on. After his graduation in 1954, he received state scholarships to pursue his studies abroad. From 1955 to 1959, he studied painting and art history in Paris, at the Académie Julien, the École des Arts Décoratifs, and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. On his return to Baghdad, he taught art history at the Institute of Fine Arts from 1970 to 1980, and also taught painting and art history at the Institute of Art Education in Saudi Arabia from 1968 to 1969. From 1980 to 1983, he headed the Department of Aesthetic Studies at the Ministry of Culture and Information. In 1992, he worked as a counselor at the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in Amman, Jordan. In 1994, he founded the symposium of Aesthetic Discourse at the Saddam Art Center in Baghdad. Al Said was also a Member of the National Committee League of Art Critics, the Iraqi Artists Syndicate, the Society of Iraqi Plastic Artists and the Iraqi Teachers' Syndicate. He stayed in Baghdad until his death in 2004.
Al Said was a prolific and influential artist. He was a founding member of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art (Jama'at Baghdad lil-Fann al-Hadith) in 1951, together with Jewad Selim and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and the One Dimension Group (al-Bu'd al-Wahid) in 1971. He wrote art manifestoes for both groups, in addition to his contemplative manifesto (al-Bayan al-Ta'ammuli) published in the cultural supplement of the Iraqi daily al-Jumhuriyyah in 1966. The manifesto he wrote for the Baghdad Group for Modern Art in 1951 was the first art manifesto of its kind in Iraq. It was read out at the group's inaugural exhibition at the Museum of Ancient Costumes in Baghdad – an event that is considered by some the true birth of modern art in Iraq. The manifesto gives voice to the group's commitment to both heritage and modernity. Its emphasis on the culture of the region drew inspiration from Islamic art, particularly al-Wasiti's thirteenth century miniature paintings, but also from products of popular culture such as traditional carpets, as well as from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. This entailed Arab artists distancing themselves from the previous course of modern art in the Arab world, which was perceived as following European models, and setting out to ground modern art more firmly in a local context. It marks a re-orientation in art that coincided with radical political change and the growth of Arab nationalism.
With the One Dimension Group, Al Said developed his theoretical approach to art further. The group was interested in the Arabic letter as a formal element in modern art, as stated by Al Said in the group's manifesto. The group held exhibitions in the early 1970s but then lost its influence as the incorporation by artists of Arabic letters into their works, sometimes referred to as al-hurufiyyah al-'arabiyyah (Arabic letterism), came to be a widely adopted practice. Al Said's interest in Arabic letters was not limited to their shape and orthography; rather, it was an integral part of his vision of an aesthetics of the trace, the wear and tear of life and marks left by time, as the cracks and fissures in his carefully textured wall paintings demonstrate.
Al Said's early paintings show an affinity to European avant-garde art movements, such as expressionism and cubism, and especially to the work of Paul Klee, but also draw on Arabic-Islamic heritage and popular culture. Mixing figurative and abstract elements, they are divided by grid-like patterns into different fields of bright color. His artistic practices, though, changed when he turned his attention to Sufism in the 1960s. It was in this context that he produced his many untitled wall paintings dominated by earth tones, in which the Arabic letter figures prominently as a formal element in the composition of an abstract painting. Calligraphy is of vital importance in the Sufi tradition, and the letter "waw," which recurs in Al Said's paintings, has aroused particular attention. As Annemarie Schimmel has pointed out in her book Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (1984), the letter "waw" which often stands for the conjunction "and" is recurrent in the definition/concept of faith in Islam, namely the "belief in God, AND his Angels, AND his Books, AND his Messengers, AND Destiny, be it good or bad." Accordingly, the sequence of "waws" can be read as symbolizing the connotations inherent in "ash-Shahadah" or "the profession of faith." Al Said borrows elements of Islamic calligraphy but places them in a contemporary context. Linked to popular and spontaneous expressions, his paintings make use of Arabic writing in the form of mural inscriptions, graffiti, and signs scribbled on a city wall. As such, they can be compared to those of the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, to whom Al Said referred explicitly in his writings.
Al Said published several books on modern art in Iraq and numerous articles in Arabic journals and newspapers. He is recognized today as one of the fathers of modern art in Iraq. His influence as an artist, a teacher, and a forerunner of art historical and theoretical writing in the Arab world has been great but has yet to be fully studied and documented.
His work is held in numerous private and public collections, among them the Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, the British Museum, London, the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha.