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Painted into a corner

Basra artist portrayed Saddam Hussein's face -- very carefully -- more than 1,000 times.

May 02, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq -- The crude concrete floor in Bahaa Omani's bedroom is freckled with paint and the wall pocked with holes where he pinned canvases to work. At night, as his wife and child slept in the bed nearby, he painted portrait after portrait of Saddam Hussein -- more than 1,000 in all, many of them huge.

It was a job that made Omani famous in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, as the president's main portrait artist here. But it required great tact and care. He never painted in Hussein's crow's-feet. He put great effort into the eyes and the expression, never veering too far from the photographs that he worked with.

Even the size of Omani's own signature was important. Once he painted it small and was accused of betraying shame about putting his name on a portrait of Hussein.

Omani finished his final painting of the Iraqi leader, a large mural, three weeks before the war began in March.

"They sapped my creativity," Omani, 52, said of the Hussein regime. "They put me in a corner and they told me, 'This is your job.' It was a deadening routine, so boring. But when they told me to do it, I had to do it."

His works have been destroyed by looters, along with other art in public buildings in Basra. He has only one original left, a drawing of his son that hangs in his home.

In recent days, looters in Basra have pulled down about 100 black figures that lined the Shatt al Arab waterway. The figures were known as the Statues of Martyrs and dedicated to those who fought in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Thieves hammered the statues to pieces with steel mallets and used tractors to cart away the copper to sell.

The destruction of the statues ignited a debate in Basra about the value of history and art. For some, like assistant art teacher Mahir Abd Jabbar, 35, the event marked a loss of part of Basra's history.

"Those statues did not represent Saddam Hussein. They were part of our civilization," he said. "We lost part of ourselves. We should keep these symbols, not destroy them."

Sculptor Ali Obayday, 34, who created busts of Hussein for a dozen cities, said the looting of the statues represents the destruction of the nation's memory. "It's not a matter of pure art. They were representative of Iraq's history," he said.

But for Omani, who lost a brother in the Iran-Iraq War, the destruction of the statues was no tragedy; nor was the disappearance of all the works the artist created in 12 lost years painting Hussein over and over again.

"They have no real value," he said of the statues. "They are not important for the people of Iraq. It's not real art."

As for the portraits, he added: "I was happy when those paintings were destroyed."

In 12 years, there was only one portrait of Hussein by Omani that the artist remembers with pride. He painted it in 1992 for an oil company in Basra. The work was presented to Hussein as a birthday gift. Baath Party officials later told Omani that it had pleased the leader greatly.

"I saw it on TV. They told me Saddam said to them that this was the only artist who was able to capture all the details of his face," Omani said.

He never met Hussein and saw him in person only once -- before Omani began painting the presidential portraits, when the Iraqi president visited the army unit where the artist was serving.

The commissions for Hussein portraits came so thick and fast that sometimes Omani was given only a day or two to finish a painting. But promotions and favors did not follow his fame and success. Omani explained that he was not a party member and never cared to join. He was invited to Baghdad and promised a house and studio, but he refused the offer.

Omani was paid between 75,000 and 100,000 dinars for each work, but he was never wealthy. The value of the dinar varied from 1,500 to 2,500 to the dollar in the period he worked on presidential portraits.

He doesn't own a house. He lives in a modest dwelling with no carpets or elegant trappings. He has no studio but paints in a room with an ancient Sony television in one corner and two fluorescent tubes for lighting.

"Usually artists are rich. But look at my situation," he said, gesturing at the room. "It's because I never belonged to the Baath Party. I just don't like politics."

He stays in his house most of the time now, afraid to venture out because of the work he did for the regime. He still fears the Baath officials, who he believes are out there, watching and waiting, as they had watched him in the past for any careless brushwork, any portraits in which the eyes appeared cruel or the face was clumsily executed.

One artist who painted two portraits of Hussein that were considered of poor quality was dismissed and disgraced last year.

"They'd bring me photographs taken when he was young," Omani said. "Sometimes I made him more handsome, leaving out the wrinkles around his eyes. I was very careful."

Omani said he spent so much time painting Hussein that he lost the chance to develop his technique and style. His frustrated dream was to open a studio and paint only portraits of children.

Today Omani says he feels a welling of optimism and freedom, yet there is no work for him. He's a portrait specialist, and in these chaotic days no one is thinking about having a portrait painted.

As he gazes at the nail-pocked wall in his room, thinking of the canvases he might have painted and the ones he had to paint instead, he refuses to allow regret to govern his spirit.

"Now I feel freedom," he said. "I had a treasure inside me which was confined. Now I'll use the whole of my creative power.

"I am not working now, but please don't think that I am unhappy," he added. "Because things will be great in the future, and then I'll be the happiest person of all."

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