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Art meets war, and one loses

With Hussein's fall, Iraqis saw creative freedom dawning. Now, a work can get its creator killed, and talent is fleeing the country.

July 26, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

Baghdad — DESPERATE for cash, his dreams of an art career swept away by war, Nebil Anwar turned his knack with a paintbrush to producing portraits of U.S. soldiers' wives and children.

It was hardly art, but it was a living. It also could have gotten him killed.

Men armed with Kalashnikovs and a radical faith are the law in many Baghdad neighborhoods, so even innocuous contact with U.S. forces is enough to be labeled a collaborator. Artists must smuggle their wares to their few remaining patrons.

It wasn't supposed to be like this, said Anwar, who has since left Baghdad for Jordan. When Saddam Hussein's statue was pulled down in Baghdad's Paradise Square in April 2003, young artists were among the first to embrace the possibilities of a new era. Within weeks a new statue rose in its place. The abstract tribute to freedom stands there still, its garish green surface chipped, faded and pocked with what appear to be bullet holes.

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.

Anwar traces his love of painting to early childhood, when he would watch his sisters sketch in pencil. His older brother tried to steer him toward what he considered more manly pursuits. His fate was sealed when their father died, leaving the two brothers to support their mother, five sisters and another brother who was sickly.

Anwar joined Hussein's air force and qualified as a pilot. It was a decision that would haunt him. After Hussein's fall, when he finally got to pursue a master's degree in fine arts, Shiite Muslim students started asking pointed questions about his past.

Pilots had been considered elite members of the military under Hussein and many former pilots have fallen victim to Shiite death squads. Anwar, a Kurd, lived in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood and was terrified the same would happen to him..

Anwar, who carries the shadows of many sleepless nights under his dark-brown eyes, says he was never interested in religion or politics. His passion was for the emotional sweep and luminous colors of America's abstract expressionists.

"They make paintings like pure light," he said in May, leafing through pictures of their works at a noisy cafe in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

But Anwar's fellow students, and even some of his teachers, seemed preoccupied with currying favor with Iraq's new leaders.

"All the exhibitions by students are about religion; that destroyed me," he said, reaching for a pipe and pulling out a crumpled packet of tobacco.

"Before, it was all propaganda about the nation. Now it is propaganda about religion."

He dropped out of college and tried to make a living selling paintings inspired by his city's sandy, sun-bleached hues. After 10 months of penury, he gave up and started turning out portraits of Americans.

His renditions of wedding and baby photos were popular souvenirs among troops deployed in Iraq. A dealer with contacts inside the fortified Green Zone, where many foreigners live and work, brought him the snapshots to copy. Working secretly from a room in one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods, Anwar could produce two or three paintings a day at $50 apiece, a small fortune in postwar Iraq.

But Anwar seemed to spend half his life peering over his shoulder. An unexpected knock on his studio door sent him into a panic. Finally, the pressure became too much to bear, and he fled to Jordan last year.

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

DOYENS of the Middle East's more stylish capitals may sneer at the bland Iraqi cuisine and frumpy dress sense. But since the ancient Sumerians began etching pictures in wet mud, giving birth to the world's first script, the country dubbed the cradle of civilization has been revered as a center of art and culture.

The many civilizations that passed through Iraq left an imprint on its artists, from the winged bulls that guarded Assyrian city gates to the elegant calligraphy of Islamic art. Now those who inherited that proud tradition are scattered across the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

The exodus began during the U.N. embargo imposed after Iraq's 1991 defeat in the Persian Gulf War. The local art market collapsed because no one had money for anything but essentials. Tourists no longer visited, and it became difficult for artists to exhibit their works abroad.

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