Kadhim Haider studied literature at the Higher Institute for Teachers; in 1957 he earned a diploma from the Institute of Fine Arts. Between 1959 and 1962 he studied theatre design at the Central College of the Arts in London. Upon returning to Iraq, he taught at the Institute of Fine Arts, opening a department of design. He continued to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts, when it replaced the Institute of Fine Arts; his book al-Takhtit wa Elwan (Sketching and Colours) became standard reading for students there. In 1971 he organized a group called the Academicians, based on an exhibition and around a text he wrote reclaiming a Platonic notion of the academy as a way to relate the different arts to each other, and to the arts of the past. He served as president of the Union of Iraqi Artists, the Union of Arab Artists, and the Society of Iraqi Plastic Artists.


Haider began showing work while he was still a student, at a number of collective exhibitions held at Nadi al-Mansur, the major exhibition space in Baghdad during the 1950s. When his work and that of other young artists was rejected for exhibition at Nadi al-Mansur in 1958, he organized a counter-exhibition of the rejected. He also displayed his work at Al-Wasiti Gallery in Baghdad in 1964, and in 1965 he exhibited the series The Epic of the Martyr at the National Museum of Modern Art. Selected works from the series were subsequently shown in Beirut, both on their own, and as a prominent part of a collective exhibition of work by Iraqi artists at the Sursock Museum, a show that toured a number of European capitals under the sponsorship of the Gulbenkian Foundation. His work was included in many major exhibitions throughout the 1970s, such as the First Arab Biennale, Baghdad, 1974; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1976; and the International Art Exhibition for Palestine held in Beirut, 1978. In 1984 he held a final solo show at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London. His work was quickly acquired by private collectors, and thus it is only in recent years that it has entered public collections beside that of the Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad, such as that of the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Arab Art in Doha.