Ali al-Tajer on Book-cover Design and Iraqi Stories

By Hend Saeed

Artist Ali al-Tajer graduated with a Master’s in Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1992. Throughout the 1990s, his interest in heritage and culture led him to researching contemporary artistic visions of the Epic of the Creation of Babel as well as Iraqi heritage more generally. As an artist, he has exhibited work in galleries around the region. Notably, his work has also been used to illustrate the jackets of many contemporary Iraqi novels.

In addition to his existing work being used on the covers of literary works, al-Tajer also illustrated the recent short-story collection The Wolf’s Tales (2019) by Iraqi author Louay Hamza Abbas. You can find illustrations from that collection on the artist’s website, as well as other art used as covers for books and magazines.

Your art is known for its unique style, which represents Iraqi heritage and it’s cultural, historical, political and social life, particularly its images of women, which has a big place in your work. Has that contributed to the selection of your works as book-cover art by many Iraqi authors?

Ali al-Tajer: Yes, I am sure it is a big factor in choosing my work as book cover. Some of the subjects in my artwork might represent the general taste, thoughts, or moods, as we Iraqis share the same burdens and have same experiences; therefore, we share similar memories that people find in my artwork.

The author might find that one of my artworks represents his thoughts or gives an idea about the story of his novel or story or the subject in a book. 

Courtesy: Ali al-Tajer

How does the process of choosing your artwork as a book cover works? Do they come from existing works or do you paint works especially for these covers? Do you read the work before giving the permission for it to be used? Have you ever refused, or can you refuse if you think the book isn’t suitable or isn’t good?

AT: It can be all these possibilities. Sometimes, after an initial agreement with the writer on a certain artwork, I read the text and then suggest some changes in the artwork, so I do some retouching on the work to be more suitable for the book. 

Some other times, the writer chooses one of my finished works and, after the writer explains to me the work in detail, and if I find it matches with my work, then I only add some touches that are required for designing the cover.

As for refusing to use one of my artworks, that has happened many times and for different reasons. 

Does the use of artwork as book covers have a long history in Iraqi literature? What was your first work that was used as a cover, and what is the book?

AT : Iraq is the cradle of civilization, therefore writing and the first cover – I consider – is the mud cover, where they used to have covers made of mud and have the name of the writer and serial number as a cover of the book.

Then came the book cover in the Golden Age of bookmaking in modern Iraq, in the beginning of the last century, and this has continued until today. There are so many good examples that it’s hard to mention any.

The first time my art work was used as a cover is for Afaq Arabia magazine in 1981.

The cover of Afaq Arabia

How many of your artworks have been used as book cover and can you tell us about some of them? Are they all used by Iraqi authors, or some other Arab authors as well?

AT:   Around 30 art works had been used for book covers and magazines. Some recent ones by Iraqi authors are Ahmed Saadawi’s باب الطباشير and موريات الذئب by Luay Hamza Abbas. And from other Arab authors,  Saudi novelist Fatima Abdulhamed’s تاء النسوة and Moroccan short-story writer Anis Arrefai’s 2021 collection, منمنم الوحوش.

Ahmed Saadawi’s  باب الطباشير.