Did those who stole and burnt as any thief think that the great history, like knowledge and beauty, doesn't end in the cupboards of the museums and shelves of the libraries or the walls of the galleries?
Instead they are in the conscious and minds of those who made all that, and those are us the noble descendants who aren't involved in ignorance, forgetting and disappointment.
We still strongly have the habit of the magic return to our merits. . .
-- Sa'ad Al-Qassab,
from the catalogue essay "Greeting to Baghdad"
Hewar Gallery, Baghdad, June 2003
Qasim Al-Septi is an artist who runs the Hewar Gallery from his house in Baghdad. He's a charismatic, handsome man in his 50s, who holds court most mornings in the gallery and the garden in the back, where there is a charming café, surrounded by lush plants and sheltered from the sun by a corrugated tin roof supported by antique columns. It's the greenest place I've seen in Iraq, and on this particular October morning it's buzzing with energy, with groups of men and a few women talking animatedly.
Qasim is showing me his own new work. His style took an abrupt change in the months leading up to the war. He felt his time might be short and that he had a lot to say, so he switched from oils to collage, and in two months produced some 250 works using old book covers from which the text had been removed. They're simple, and range in mood from lyrical to somber.
"It's not important, the style. You should not get stuck in one place always doing the same thing," explains Qasim simply, in between discussions with artists about displaying their work and hollering to his young son to grab some nails to secure a painting in its frame.
Artists of Qasim's generation were the students of the "Pioneers," the first generation of Iraqi artists to bring modernism to Iraq, often inspired by their studies not in Europe but in Turkey. Indeed, modernist abstraction influenced by European and American schools is the reigning painting style in Baghdad.
Sculpture, on the other hand, tends towards a kind of expressive figuration that brings to mind the work of Marino Marini or Henry Moore. Figurative painting literally has a second class status, often shown on the second floor of galleries here.
The Saddam Arts Center was Baghdad's Museum of Modern Art -- and it was looted of all its painting and sculpture after the U.S. invasion. Qasim takes me to a back room in his house, stuffed with paintings and frames, and indicates a pile of canvases in the corner.
"These are some of the Pioneers' paintings from the museum. I sold my car to be able to buy them from the looters. I have sworn to myself and to my friends that when there is a new museum I will donate these paintings to it."
The museum's collection was huge, however, and it's unlikely that many works have found their way into such altruistic hands as Qasim's. I was approached in the street by one man who'd seen me drawing and offered to sell me paintings stolen from the museum.
Qasim is notoriously apolitical, which allowed him to run his gallery during Saddam's reign as a central meeting place for artists, collectors, diplomats (during the sanctions, UN personnel played a vital role as collectors and as a cultural lifeline to the West) and the general public. He freely admits to once painting a portrait of Saddam and says, "Look, no person was forced to do this thing, my dear. But the money! I took my friends out to dinners for weeks on the payment. Where's the painting now? Destroyed, I'm sure!"
He's known for his wit, in particular his ability to come up with spontaneous and usually raunchy poems based around any name or word. "Well, because of my lame foot, you see, there were only two ways I could protect myself from bullies. I can hurt them with words, and also, I can spit very far and very accurately!"
The importance of Qasim's role in the Baghdad art scene can't be overstated. Every time I drop in there's at least one well-known artist from another city, enjoying the ceremoniously baked fish luncheon that Qasim throws several times a week. One afternoon I meet Mohammed Arrif, an older Kurdish painter visiting from Erbil, where he teaches at the art academy, and Muayad Muhsin, a younger surrealist painter from Hilla in town for the day.
The relationship between artists and the former regime was complicated. No one could sponsor cultural events without having to answer questions from the secret police. The trick was to avoid talking with anyone who could be implicated politically, so that one could truthfully keep one's answers bland.
Rumors and jealousies here have a particular potency because of the favors as well as the harm that could be doled out to artists by the former regime. Spies were Saddam's lifeline to self-preservation, and artists were especially suspect. An artist who informed on others could be granted favors helpful to a career, including easier access to foreign embassies which held exhibitions, printed catalogs and produced collectors (the French embassy was considered the top prize). Spying could also get you out of military service.
I talked with a young artist who has been accused by another artist of spying for the security forces. At our first meeting, to my disappointment, he's neither obsequious nor nasty, and his work is attractive. Of course he denies the charges. He has a good reason for doing no military service, and since he showed his work with the French embassy, and was permitted to travel abroad it's quite possible that professional jealousy is motivating the accusations. He's likeable, and I don't get an intuitive sense of guilt or innocence. Regardless, he's paying a price: some of his former friends shun him, and as we're sitting in the Hewar Gallery garden he points out someone who often insults him to goad him into a fight. He tells me that the posters for his last show were torn down when he put them up. Now it may be difficult for him to leave Iraq. Yet he speaks calmly and philosophically. It occurs to me that probably few people, if approached by the secret police, would have refused them outright. Better to play along and give as little information as possible.
In any case, he's paying a price for those benefits now. Some of his former friends shun him, and as we're sitting in the Hewar Gallery garden he points out someone who often insults him in an attempt to goad him into a fight. The posters for his last show were torn down every time he put them up. Now it may be difficult for him to leave Iraq. Yet he tells me this calmly and philosophically. It occurs to me that probably few people, if approached by the secret police, would have refused them outright. Better to play along and give as little information as possible.
* * *
What follows is a small and entirely subjective response to the art that I saw and was able to photograph. Baghdad has hundreds of artists and, like anywhere else, plenty of bad art. The kitsch of Baghdad tends to take the form of craftsy School of Paris abstraction. Often I would be dismayed by the slickness of a gallery's wares, only to discover interesting work in the back room. Here I include just a few of the artists whose work I responded to.
The father of Iraqi painting was Abdul Qadar Rasam, who studied painting in Turkey around the turn of the century. A kind of Iraqi proto-modernist, his realist paintings have a pared-down, almost minimalist sensibility. His evocative juxtapositions and straightforward paint handling remind me of Magritte. Many of his major works were stolen from the Saddam Arts Center, but I saw a couple of small paintings in galleries.
All of Rasam's work looked fresh, yet the next generation of Iraqi artists, the Pioneers, seems to have ignored him in a headlong rush to absorb all they could from European modernism. They tried to introduce local imagery culled from Sumer and Babylon as well as Arabic architecture into Cubist- and Expressionist-style paintings and sculpture. I'll skip over their works, which are ubiquitous in Iraqi texts and public monuments, and concentrate instead on some of the living artists I've met.
Of the younger generation, Ahmed Al-Safi is a particularly talented painter and sculptor who's managed to make a living selling his art. He paints simple, almost crudely rendered figures reminiscent of the German Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s (whose work he immediately investigated on the web when I told him about them). Ahmed has a wonderful studio in the slummy but picturesque part of town near Tarea Square, where he has bronze-casting facilities.
His friend Esam Pasha is a painter whose work doesn't yet match his ambition, but I think he shows great promise. One of Esam's projects is to paint murals over the old defaced Saddam portraits around Baghdad. He's completed one so far, in bold, bright colors, featuring birds and parts of traditional Baghdad architecture over an abstract ground.
Haider Wadi is a young sculptor who uses wings as a motif, perhaps to symbolize the idea of freedom and liberation. At any rate the sense of lightness and flight contrasts nicely with the heavy bronze surfaces.
Young artists tend to be progressive in their social mores (a few of the artists I met are atheists, a taboo of unimaginable proportions here), yet their milieu remains a scene without women, with the exception of the NGO women who sometimes show up to flirt with them. Even among artists, Iraqi women rarely join the men in socializing.
This puts the young men in an unenviable position: they've resisted the Iraqi tradition of marrying at a young age yet have no female companionship to speak of. Thus, the 20- and 30-something artists of Baghdad spend a lot of time thinking, fantasizing and talking about women.
Wasima Al-Agha is one of the few female artists whose work I came across, although I never saw her in person at Hewar Gallery. She and her husband, the painter Mahood Akmed, are older and both teach at the Fine Arts Academy. Some of the younger artists I talked to didn't take Wasima's work very seriously, seeing it, perhaps, as decorative and illustrational. I suspect this has to do with the macho-abstraction prerogative which still stubbornly holds sway here. In any case, Wasima's work is fresh, straightforward and filled with personality. It comments wryly on the lives of Iraqi women with a certain Joan Brown-like sassiness.
Her husband Mahood's work also focuses on women, notably, the decorative tattoos they wear in traditional tribal Arab cultures. The paintings are gently sexy and conjure up an otherworldly place where lines drawn on a woman's body have a magic import. Mahood studied art in the Soviet Union, and his style reflects a revolutionary brand of didactic painting, like that of Jose Clemente Orozco, but with an eroticized content. (Mahood told me that the tribal tattoos on a woman's breasts keep them from sagging.) I include his portrait of Saddam here, which I came across in a book; it's a terrific example of propaganda art.
Two artists whose work I admired, but never got a chance to meet, are Samir Mozani and Saad Al-Qassab. Mozani paints in a bold Ab-Ex style. His canvases are large for Baghdad (five feet plus), where the easel-sized canvas predominates. While his fluid, allover style will seem very familiar to a western audience, there's a personality and conviction to his work that resists the easy comparisons.
Al-Qassab works in simple, flat hues with an entirely original color sense. His florid shapes constantly suggest bodies and deep space; there's a pop quality to his line and shape that reminds me of The Yellow Submarine, ever so slightly subversive.
Layth Matti's work has even more of a cartoon sensibility but a strange, thorny interior. These intricate works on paper are filled with original iconography which relates, in part, to the artist's physical disabilities. Motifs of hands and feet constantly re-appear around the detailed and peculiar narratives taking place across the paper. Each small drama occurs in it's own little space, separated like rooms in some vast palace from the Arabian Nights, all layered around a richly-hued, beating heart. They're beautifully drawn.
Daring collectors traveling to Iraq will no doubt discover their own favorites. Now could be a good time. I've recently come across Iraq's first tourists from the West. A young Englishmen named Robert went water-skiing on the Tigris and was very sick afterwards. A conspiracy-minded German just got back from Tikrit, with his Palestinian translator. "The CIA is everywhere," he told me. "You know that, don't you?"
Self-described freelancers with little direct backing are initiating various odd projects. They hobnob with hippies, businessmen and special forces at the pricier hotel bars. One can send a package to the U.S. with a reasonable expectation of receiving it. Many hotels and restaurants are open and eager for business; it's easier to get a cab in Baghdad than in New York. News reports notwithstanding, Iraqis outside the Sunni triangle are very friendly towards American civilians, but of course there are the bombs, the crime, the occasional shoot-outs. And it's a long ride from Amman.
One widely repeated observation here is that abstraction was a convenient technique for a time when all narrative content was suspect. Everyone expects art to change with the passing of Saddam's regime, though at this point, no one I talked to is making any predictions about future trends in Iraqi art. I've seen no video art and practically no photography in Baghdad. Installation art is unknown. Indeed, few artists in Iraq have even heard of Andy Warhol. Now that communication with the rest of the world is starting to open up, Iraqi artists will discover just how large an ocean they're swimming in.
Since writing this article, violence has come to both of the artists' locales mentioned here, Hewar Gallery and Mutanebi Street. Hewar is located just across from the Turkish Embassy, which was bombed a few weeks ago. The art journalist Steve Vincent, who is in Iraq on assignment, had left Hewar only minutes before the blast. He reports that the gallery suffered no damage, but a lot of windows were blown out, and car parts rained down on the garden.
This week an explosion rocked Mutanebi Street on the opposite end from the Shabander Teahouse. The artist Ahmed Al-Safi says in an email, "Yes it was bad news about our Al Mutanebi Street. They killed a poor man (tea maker) and destroyed two nice old buildings with my favorite restaurant of shawerma. Many books on fire."
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. His exhibition, "Steve Mumford in Iraq: Drawing from Life," is on view Oct. 23-Nov. 22, 2003, at Postmasters in New York.