A portrait of the arts in a war zone

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 11:10 pm, July 26th, 2007 | Topic: iraq, art

One aspect of the war in Iraq that has been hard to grasp, for Americans trying to follow events from across an ocean, is how the war has affected the day-to-day culture of the place. We do hear occasionally that Iraqis have stopped frequenting markets due to the violence, or have returned to the markets due to a lull in violence, or that restaurants and barbershops in certain areas have closed, or perhaps reopened, but the vast majority of the coverage — understandably — is focused on hard news like the jockeying among political blocs and the ongoing violence.

Gallery in Baghdad

Thursday’s LA Times has a nicely done story providing a glimpse into the Baghdad art scene, and how it has fared in the past four years. Most of what we learn is as unencouraging as most other news out of Iraq:

Like other segments of Iraqi society, the art community is withering under a daily assault of car bombs, kidnappings, gunfights and mortar blasts. Dictatorship has given way to the suffocating strictures of religious extremists, who frown on most forms of artistic expression, consider sculpture idolatrous and a painting of a nude an insult to Islam.

Many of Iraq’s artists have joined the flight that has decimated the country’s intellectual reserves. For those who remain, it is a constant struggle to keep producing work that few will ever see and most cannot afford.

The article focuses on Nebil Anwar, who had high hopes for an artistic career after the fall of Saddam, but found himself painting portraits of foreigners to make a living, copying the paintings from photographs because it was too risky to meet face to face. The money was good, but he lived in constant fear that he would be discovered, and finally he decided to move to Jordan, where he now lives. He is pessimistic about the future of art in Iraq:

“Art will die in Iraq,” he predicted gloomily. “Art comes from the artists, and if the artists go, then art will go with them.”

While most of Baghdad’s once-plentiful galleries have had to close, and many artists feel compelled to work in secret, there is a brighter note at the very end of the article. A new gallery opened last year, and it is busy with art shows, poetry readings, and lectures:

For Nasar, the gallery embodies his belief in the power of art to open the eyes of those who follow blindly; it restores sanity amid the bloodshed and creates new heroes for a generation growing up under the sway of gunmen.

“Art is part of life here in Iraq,” he said. “Without it, people would become like monsters.”

Baghdad muralThe BBC posted a little slideshow on their website in 2005, showing the art that was appearing on the large concrete blast walls that had been erected around Baghdad to protect embassies and other buildings. In an act of defiance against the violence and strife, the artists had covered the drab and imposing concrete with striking murals of pastoral scenes, peace doves, mosques and churches coexisting, and quiet cityscapes.

It would be foolish, of course, to see the persistence of art as a sign that things are better than they seem in Iraq — despite Anwar’s dire prediction, art probably never dies entirely — but nevertheless it’s heartening to get this reminder that art does persist, against reason and against despair.

Pasha's 'The Vulture'

(”The Vulture” by Esam Pasha, from “Ashes to Art: The Iraqi Phoenixā€¯ at the Pomegranate Gallery in New York City, 2006)

More at:

Post-Saddam Art, Newsweek online, January 20, 2006

The Art of Kareem Risan and the Uranium Civilization, Electronic Iraq, July 23, 2007

Concrete: Canvas of Resistance, Subtopia, May 1, 2007