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Artists' block in Iraq

Despite greater freedom of speech, painters and sculptors say they have no ability to transform their long-suppressed ideas into tangible art.

November 09, 2003|Lauren Sandler | Special to The Times

Baghdad — On the road out of Kuwait, when he was retreating with his army unit from the carnage of what he calls the first American War, Nasir Kadham saw something he knew he had to paint.

It was a sight he thought told the story of the horrors he had just witnessed. Two soldiers lay by the side of the road; one shot to death, one still living, the living one eating from a crust of bread soaked in the dead one's blood.

But when Kadham returned to Iraq, a land under the ever-tightening fist of its dictator, he knew he would never be able to record this image. Instead, he painted a group of soldiers sharing bread, while one sat off to the side scribbling in a diary. "That memory, only I know, is the memory of that day," says Kadham, dragging on a cigarette in one nervous hand while patting a dirty gray handkerchief against his brow with the other. "A picture of the real image they would have thought was against the government. I could never make a painting like that, even though it was something real that I saw. They would find me."

Even Kadham's "more peaceful" paintings seemed impossible to create at times during Saddam Hussein's rule. He was making a living reproducing famous Orientalist works for sale to the rare foreign businessman who would step into his hot, airless gallery on a dusty street in a relatively upscale Baghdad neighborhood to sip Pepsi, talk about the embargo and occasionally pick up some of his work.

"But it was not really my work," Kadham says. "It was other people's work. My work was too hard, too expensive to do. It takes so long to make something that is your work. I could only afford the time to do this work," he says, gesturing sadly at a copy of a familiar-looking vermilion painting of an ancient robed figure holding an oil lamp. "Now it is worse every day. There is no money. I am too tired. Bad circumstances can be advantageous to an artist to make true art, but this is too much."

Kadham's words are echoed by artists throughout Baghdad, almost all of whom have found themselves incapable of making art since the war. Since the 1940s, this nation has had a strong history of modern art, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism, most notably the "pioneer movement" of the '50s that made Iraq the contemporary artistic center of the Arab world.

Here, security guards, taxi drivers and professors alike reverently intone the names of significant Iraqi artists -- people such as painter Jewad Selim and sculptor Mohammed Ghani, who never quite gained fame outside the Middle East.

These artists were known not just for their innovation but their prolific output. But those who carry on their legacy today have seen their paint pots dry up in the last months. They cite exhaustion, depression, the distraction brought by fears about their security from violent thieves, the difficulty of painting or sculpting without electricity to light their work, the lack of money for materials. They have greater freedom of speech, they say, but no ability to transform their long-quashed ideas into tangible art.

Across town at Gallery Hewar, a gallery and outdoor cafe that for 10 years has been a sanctuary for discussion among artists, these lamentations form the usual palm-shaded conversation over afternoon glasses of sugared tea.

"Do you know what 'hewar' means? It means dialogue. And this is the dialogue these days even in this dreamland gallery for artists," says gallery owner Qisam Sebti, a local painter who has long cut a dashing figure on the Iraqi cultural scene.

Sebti has not picked up a brush since the first days of the war. An exhibition hangs on the cool, white walls of his space, but none of the work is new. In the two months before the war, he frenetically churned out 130 paintings -- all abstract works incorporating discarded book covers -- because he feared he would die in the bombing and this was his last shot at immortality.

He now faces the continuing dire situation here, and like many artists refers to the past under Hussein as a better time for the arts in Iraq.

Many artists here will put politics aside and rattle off a series of figures about life for artists during Hussein's rule. They'll tell you that before the regime, there was one academy of art; during the regime there were four. Student enrollment in the academies leapt from 400 to 3,000. Paint and clay were paid for by the government. Saddam even paid high salaries to hundreds of artists for several years, from 50,000 to 150,000 dinars depending on how they ranked in the culture ministry's artistic firmament.

"Of course it was better then," says abstract artist Semira Abdul Wahab, who has not painted since the war. "Artists need calm, they need to be able to meditate. I have not had one minute of calm since the war began."

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