Quantum realism and the legacies of war

In 1971 Mahmoud Sabri published a manifesto for Quantum Realism, in which he sought to develop a new form of art. An eminent artist, Sabri was born in Baghdad, where he completed his secondary education. He went on to study political science in London before returning to Iraq, becoming part of the modernist Pioneer Group. A communist, he later went into exile, living in Prague and towards the end of his life, England (he died in April 2012).

Sabri’s manifesto proposed a form of art based on two principles:

1: That the world is, as Engels put it, “a complex of PROCESSES” rather than a “complex of ready-made THINGS.”

2. That mass and energy are interchangeable as formulated by Einstein in his equation E=MC2.

As Sabri formulated it, Quantum Realism would be ‘an art of processes’, ‘the earliest stage of the new art of techno-nuclear humanity’. Based on the fundamental components of quantum, atom and structural process, Sabri translated the visible spectra of elements into a vocabulary which he used to create graphic art works. As he wrote,

such a voluntary limitation of artistic means is an inevitable condition for the transformation of the subjective art of agrarian man [sic] into the new objective art of techno-nuclear man. There is no doubt that with the development of working technique and colour manufacture more elaborate elements would be created in the future by amplifying the colour structure of various units so as to be more representative of the full line-spectra.

A view of Sabri at the first exhibition in Prague in 2071 (taken from the Quantum Realism website) shows how his ideas were translated into art works:


Sabri hoped that by using sophisticated technology, mankind would be able to go beyond seeing things only as defined by white light; in this way techno-nuclear mankind would be able to transcend the limitations of natural/animal existence, able to ‘see space and things differently’. Sabri hoped his art work would help to foster this new way of seeing and thus the emergence of a new humanity.

Sabri’s techno-nuclear optimism reads very differently today, but it has been taken up in an interesting way by Satta Hashem, whose practice has been influenced by colour theory and Sabri’s work in particular. In his current project, Hashem returns to Quantum Realism in relation to the enduring legacies of militarisation and war for the landscapes and environments of Iraq. In this work, he follows the folding of techno-science through geopolitical loops: weapons science was one of the currencies of exchange between Iraq, Western states and the Soviet bloc during the Cold War and the Iran-Iraq war, and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programmes became a premise for the long phase of military intervention that culminated in the invasion of 2003.

Hashem’s current work revisits Sabri’s ideas on Quantum Realism in the context of the environmental legacies of war, producing works based on the colour signatures of soil components and pollutants found in Iraq’s landscapes. In transposing the effects of conflict into colour-based forms, Hashem’s work calls to mind the interaction and indeterminacy between the human and non-human, the scientific and the social as well as questions of realism and materialism that have been at the heart of recent debates in human geography and beyond. It also references the contested debates surrounding the use and effects of specific weapons such as depleted uranium and white phosporous and asks us to think how science is deployed in relation to current, past and future geopolitical conflicts.


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