Art in Iraq: ‘Baghdad is happening! It’s like New York…’ – The Guardian
Hussein Adel is a struggling young artist sharing a tiny bedsit and living on take-out sandwiches. But the car horns blaring on the busy Baghdad street outside are a reminder that he is living his dream.
“Baghdad is where everything is happening – it’s like New York,” he says, surrounded by his paintings and sketches on the bed he and his two roommates take turns sharing.
Adel was 15 when his father, who had himself dreamed of studying art, brought him here from the provincial southern city of Nasriyah to enrol in Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts. “He stayed with me for two months and then he said: ‘You can take care of yourself better than I can. If I stay with you, you won’t become a man,’” says Adel.
The diminutive young man with a tangle of curly hair has just turned 20 and is in his final year at the academy. To help pay the rent he sells cartoons to newspapers for $15 each. They are social and political commentary – in one the snakelike tongue of a corpulent politician reaches out to lick the lollipop of a child wearing threadbare clothing. In another, a piper promising paradise calls Isis suicide bombers to their death.
His oil-on-paper caricatures depict figures from history and popular culture: Albert Einstein with a polkadot bow in his hair, a deeply sinister-looking Mr Bean and Elvis Presley – whom Adel describes as a famous American singer whose name escapes him. Adel barely remembers the prewar Iraq, cut off from the world. But he is a product of an Iraqi society deeply rooted in the arts and a child of the internet. Without enough money even to travel back to visit his hometown, he has exhibited his work through internet exhibitions organised by artists in Spain, Egypt and Qatar.
He does some of his drawing with an off-brand digital stylus he paid $50 for in the market. His big dream is to make animated films. “I’ve learned basic things at the academy, but most of what I know is from YouTube,” he says. Online tutorials have taught him animation techniques and digital drawing.
him an education in surviving the streets. At times when he couldn’t afford to pay the rent, he moved to a series of apartments in ever- dodgier neighbourhoods – including an industrial area in central Baghdad which had been an al-Qaida stronghold.
“It was dangerous at the time, but I didn’t know what was going on and it was cheap,” Adel says. “I stayed there for two years – people were drunk all the time and there were clashes with American soldiers – it was like a film or a fairytale. I never told my parents what was going on.”
His roommates are a writer and a poet. “Of course it was very difficult. And it was frightening. Almost every month I would have to move and it was difficult to find places to stay, but I always kept in my mind why I came to Baghdad, and my plans for the future.”
The animated films he wants to make include one about a boy who discovers a way to help his father fly, and so escape from Abu Ghraib prison, and one about Iraqis swallowed by a whale and the world they create inside.
“I want to find an institute outside Iraq, to learn there and then come back. If I stay here, I can’t learn,” he says. “Of course I want to come back because there are young guys like me who want to learn animation. Iraq is going through a difficult situation, but there is still life here.”
More than 1,000 years ago, Baghdad was the centre of an outward-looking Islamic world – home to one of the earliest universities and to writers and poets whose works have survived the centuries.
In its recent history, modern Baghdad has reaped the benefits of a tradition of publicly funded art, although obviously within strict political constraints. Rare among Arab cities where conservative Islamic thought bans depiction of living forms, the Iraqi capital is known for its figurative modern and contemporary sculpture. On the riverbank, the late Mohammed Ghani Hikmat’s towering bronze Sheherazade spins tales to a reclining King Shahryar. His other sculptures inspired by 1,001 Nights dot parks and roundabouts.
In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, Jawad Saleem’s monument commemorating the 1958 revolution shows the influences of a government-funded art education in European capitals. Almost every government building displays works by some of Iraq’s most important artists commissioned in the decades before the 2003 war.
Now, for the artists, there is less support but fewer constraints. At the recent annual exhibition of the Iraqi Plastic Arts Society, the national artists’ union, performance artist Hareth Muthana, wearing a black mask, suspended himself from a tree.
With an increasingly religiously conservative society and middle-class emigration reducing the market for art and government funding drying up, hundreds of Iraqi artists have also left the country, leaving those behind more and more isolated. “People’s voices are often not heard because Iraqis aren’t able to say it in a way that is audible to the west,” says Tamara Chalabi, head of the non-governmental Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, which is organising the Iraq pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Chalabi is the daughter of Ahmed Chalabi, who played a controversial role in convincing the US and its allies to invade Iraq in 2003 and later became deputy prime minister. For all that, within Iraq, the elder Chalabi is known as a leading patron of local artists.
On a recent evening, Tamara sat with artist Akeel Korsheed in his apartment in central Baghdad. His intricate drawings are based on religious history and heroes from ancient epics. Chalabi showed him work by artists who have explored more personal themes. “I said to him: ‘Why aren’t you dealing with the world around you? I know you might want to forget the pain and the explosions and so on, but why are you just doing Gilgamesh?’ There’s nothing wrong with Gilgamesh, but it’s about this lack of introspection which is part of a larger cultural story.”
To increase artists’ exposure, Ruya maintains a growing database of Iraqi visual artists, musicians, photographers and actors inside and outside Iraq. It also tries to help develop artistic talent, exposing some of the artists to new influences. “There are some extremely good Iraqi artists with strong techniques and abilities,” says Furat al-Jamil, Ruya’s Iraq office director, herself an artist and filmmaker.
“But most of them still adhere to the idea that they have to produce art that pleases and doesn’t express their feelings and ideas or thoughts. Many of them were educated during long years when they were told what to produce and forbidden to produce what they wanted… Most artwork is excellent, but it lacks soul.”
Many of Korsheed’s drawings depict beautifully muscled ancient heroes doing battle. In real life, Korsheed struggles with the effects of childhood polio, moving with difficulty around the apartment he shares with his disabled mother.
His biggest project is the most evocative of Iraqi stories – the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussain in Karbala. The drawing has taken two years and 70 sketches. At work at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture’s Fashion House, Korsheed designs costumes and fantasy-like dresses. At home, he locks the door and shuts himself up with his pens and coloured pencils, disappearing into his world of drawings of muscular men and horses.
“I took a two-week vacation from the directorate and I came and locked the door. I spread out my papers and I worked. I felt: ‘This is my kingdom,’ he says. “I have big dreams, but no one will accept them. I dream that one of my paintings will be a monument in Baghdad. I dream that I can finish my master’s outside Iraq,” he says. “The situation doesn’t help, but what can you do?”
The theme at this year’s Iraq pavilion at the Venice Biennale is “Invisible Beauty”. Al-Jamil herself was one of the artists at the last Venice Biennale, where more than 82,000 people visited the Iraq pavilion. In her installation a wooden frame dripped honey into a broken pot – meant to evoke, she says, the melancholy of what has happened to Iraq.
“People were curious about art and culture in Iraq,” she says. “Before coming to the pavilion the only information people had about Iraq was war and violence.”
Despite Korsheed’s urge to shut himself away, violence is a theme in much Iraqi art. One of the artists Ruya has chosen for this year’s exhibition – Haider Jabar, an exile in Turkey – has been working on a series of decapitated heads. Al-Jamil’s latest installation features a video of a neighbour who pruned palm trees – played in slow motion until every stroke of the machete sounds like a heart beat. He was shot dead days after she filmed him in her garden. Al-Jamil, who was born in Germany but lived in Iraq as a teenager before moving back there some years ago, says creating art is a response to the death and destruction. “In order to survive the destructive situation you create works of art that represent your inner urge to survive,” she says. “My artwork is mainly about rehabilitation, rebuilding, coming back to life and not surrendering to that horrible destruction… This is just a passing moment in the history of this country, so why should I surrender to that moment?”
Al-Jamil’s films include Baghdad Night – an animated short film about a saluwa – a witch-like character from Iraqi folklore. The film – produced entirely in Iraq by Iraqis – begins when a taxi driver picks up a beautiful woman whose destination is a graveyard.
“I don’t want our tangible and intangible heritage to disappear,” she says. “When I take for example the saluwa or an old jar and make art with it this is taking history to the present moment and carrying it on to the future because art survives in the end. I will die eventually, but my art will remain.”
In fact, Iraqi art has proved irrepressible. At Qasim Sabti’s Hewar Art Gallery, artists gathered in the garden café next to the gallery throughout the crippling international trade sanctions of the 1990s, the invasion and the sectarian violence that followed Saddam Hussein’s removal the following decade. One of Sabti’s own postwar series incorporates the spines of books rescued from the burning and looting that accompanied the fall of Baghdad.
On Fridays, near the famous book market on Al-Mutanabbi Street, artists meet at Al-Qushla Square, renovated and reopened two years ago and now a haven for poets, artists, musicians and protestors.
At a recent meeting, passers-by posed for sketches near the Ottoman clock tower while children tried their hand with coloured pencils. A makeshift shrine with candles paid tribute to artist Jassim Abu Dua’, who had died the previous week. The retired sculptor had come every Friday, sketching anyone who wanted a portrait at no charge. “He died sketching,” said one of his friends.
This year’s Iraq pavilion at the Venice Biennale also includes photographer Latif al-Ani, considered the father of Iraqi photography. The 83-year-old began his work in the 1950s – considered by many Iraq’s golden era. “Latif is a forgotten master,” says Chalabi. “His name has not been heard on the scene for years and years and you suddenly through his archives discover this old hidden treasure.”
In the 1950s as Iraq developed its oil industry, al-Ani was hired by the British-run Iraqi Petroleum Company, where he trained under an English photographer. He travelled the length and breadth of the country for the company’s magazine, taking photographs that become so iconic that one – a woman harvesting wheat – was appropriated to illustrate Iraq’s 25,000 dinar note.
“Iraq at that time was a developed country and we felt there was progress everywhere,” says al-Ani. At a time when there was no airport in the Gulf countries, al-Ani would fly in and out of Basra, on Iraq’s southern coast. Many of his photographs are aerial shots taken from small planes and helicopters.
When the oil companies were nationalised, he began working for the Ministry of Culture which published a magazine in four languages, and then the state-run Iraqi News Agency. In the days when Iraq was a wealthy regional power, he travelled with Saddam Hussein on official trips to Paris and other capitals. “It felt glamorous because we were Iraqi, not because we were with Saddam,” he says. The trips were fraught with tension. “We were always afraid of making mistakes.”
Al-Ani says he stopped taking photographs and moved to Kuwait in 1977 after he ran into trouble with Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. He returned to Baghdad in 1983, but never again worked as a professional photographer. He helped develop Iraq’s photographers’ union and a new generation of photographers.
In 2003, when Baghdad fell, more than half a million historic photos in the archives of the culture ministry were stolen by looters. By then al-Ani had relocated part of his own archives to Beirut, but thousands of his photos were lost. Many of his pictures show an almost unimaginably glamorous Iraq. In one, fashionably dressed women examine strings of pearls in a department store case. In another, an English film crew poses in Babylon. Everything looked new, everything looked modern. “The days of plenty,” al-Ani calls them.
That Iraq was replaced. In 2007, one of al-Ani’s sons, a policeman who worked with American forces, was killed when a bomb was placed under his car. His remaining son died four years ago when a generator Iraqis now rely upon for electricity caught fire.
Al-Ani, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie, points out a photo of his first wife Raja, who died four decades ago. The photo is an idyllic picnic scene at a shrine north of Baghdad.
“Life holds everything – sadness, disasters, happiness,” he says. “But I always looked for images that would make people happy.”