Jewad Selim is considered to be the founder of modern art in Iraq. Though born in Ankara in 1921, he belonged to a family originally from Mosul. He was introduced to painting by his father, Haj Mohammad Selim, an officer in the Ottoman military who had been trained in landscape painting at the Military Academy in Istanbul. In 1938 Selim received a government scholarship to study in Paris. When Germany invaded France in 1939, he relocated to Rome, until he was finally forced to return to Baghdad in 1940. During the war, Selim worked at the Directorate of Antiquities, continuing to produce work that he showed at the many exhibitions held at that time in Baghdad. From 1946 to 1949 he studied sculpture at the Slade School in London.


Upon his return to Iraq he began teaching at the Institute of Fine Arts. In 1951 he founded the Baghdad Group for Modern Art. In 1959 he was asked by the Iraqi government to design a monument to commemorate the July revolution; he died of a heart attack in 1961 before construction of it was completed. The Monument of Freedom in Tahrir Square is regarded today as a national Iraqi landmark.


During the 1940s Selim displayed his work at several group exhibitions sponsored by the Society of Iraqi Artists, which had formed in 1941 to provide a platform for the arts in wartime Baghdad. His first solo show was at the house of Nizar Ali Jawdat in 1950. Throughout the 1950s he participated in group exhibitions of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art and the Society of Iraqi Artists, in addition to exhibiting his work in Beirut and Chicago. In 1968 a retrospective was held for him at the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad. His work is held in private and public collections including Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Museum of Modern Art, Baghdad, and Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman.