Art in war-torn occupied Iraq

Ryana Muhammed, left, watched as Sammer Esam worked on a painting recently at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Young artists have been influenced by the years of war and occupation, as shown by the painting at right of a weeping woman above religious text

From the New York Times in the USA:

From a New Generation of Artists, Vivid Canvases of Iraq’s Pain


Published: June 18, 2011

BAGHDAD — Inside a crumbling Baghdad apartment building, past spouting drainpipes and up a gloomy staircase, a tiny revolution is playing out in oil and acrylic paint.

In a studio lighted by one fluorescent bulb, a 34-year-old artist named Haleem Kasim paints images of war and pain almost unknown in Iraqi art before the American invasion, and seldom seen in the years since. Black streaks slash across his chaotic canvases. Faces howl. Ghostly hands grasp at something unseen. “I used to paint the happy life — nature and things like plants and roses to make me happy,” Mr. Kasim said. “I thought there was a pretty life waiting for me. The environment around you forces you to change.”

A new generation of Iraqi artists, one molded by bloodshed and occupation, is finding its voice in a place reshaped by eight years of war. They grew up under Saddam Hussein and stayed in Iraq through the killing and mayhem that scattered hundreds of Iraq’s most prominent artists into exile in Europe, Jordan and America.

Hundreds of artists is a very low estimate. Some estimates say 90% of Iraqi artists either fled or were killed after Bush’s 2003 invasion. The New York Times here in this article does not mention Syria where a million and half Iraqis including the whole Iraqi film and television college fled to (in a later paragraph, the article does mention Syria briefly). Those Iraqis voted with their feet that even the Assad dictatorship in Syria was preferable to the United States military dictatorship in occupied Iraq.

“Young Iraqis are able to create a new kind of painting to fill this vacuum,” said Mohammed al-Kanani, the head of Iraq’s high committee for the arts. “They are a window.” …

But they are straining against the same forces that stifled a youth-led protest movement earlier this year: a calcified political and social elite that wants to control the country’s narrative. While the fall of Mr. Hussein gave artists a new freedom to paint what they want, including once-forbidden political subjects, the artists say they are still rebuked, even sometimes intimidated, by the artistic and political establishment for expressing a grim vision of Iraq. Their elders would prefer them to avoid uncomfortable subjects like the corruption and violence that continues to plague the country.

“Galleries and committees stopped giving me prizes,” said Mr. Kasim, whose art darkened after he saw a double car bombing outside his home in 2006. “They always ask me to make a painting for decoration, that pleases people. They didn’t see what we saw. They don’t have the suffering we have inside.”

The pressure to conform only adds to a list of frustrations unsurprising in a country emerging from years of war; artists say they have a hard time finding good-paying work or well-heeled patrons. Basim Shakir, 24, is one of those testing the bounds of free expression in Iraq’s tenuous democracy — so far with limited success.

To call Iraq now a ‘democracy’, even a ‘tenuous’ one, is an euphemism, to use an understatement.

He has won prizes outside the country for his realistic portraits of an Iraqi woman begging in the street and a boy with a prosthetic leg selling cigarettes. In 2008, he decided to make a more pointed statement, and painted a group of children tearing up a campaign poster with the logo of one of Iraq’s leading political alliances.

Mr. Shakir said his painting was briefly shown inside Iraq’s Parliament before offended lawmakers demanded that it be taken down. A few weeks later, he said, friends with connections to the police began warning him of threats against his life. Mr. Shakir said he fled to Syria for several months. “I am not afraid,” he said. “I will continue painting what I see.”

Even Mr. Kanani, who oversees about 2,000 students in one of Baghdad’s leading art colleges, said he tried to steer his students away from subjects like death and conflict. That kind of art does not help, and it just does not sell, he tells students. Why focus on the killing?

Walking through a student gallery recently, he frowned at a haunting relief of screaming ceramic faces molded into the shape of the Iraqi map. This was not good art, he said. He preferred a nearby painting of women celebrating their independence through a trip to a beauty salon. “We need beauty and happiness,” he explained.

Earlier this spring, the government and several leading Iraqi art societies sponsored a contest for young artists. It brought a riot of perspectives into a cavernous, white-walled gallery. There were vivid cubist landscapes, desert vistas, abstract color fields and celebrations of women’s sexuality.

There were also stark scenes of suffering that implicitly criticized the achievements of Iraq’s leaders as well the American invasion and occupation. In one painting, a young Iraqi girl stands alone and frightened, suffused with color and surrounded by a phalanx of American soldiers in heavy shades of gray.

A girl in bright colors is flanked by American soldiers painted in somber shades of blue and black

U.S. mayors group calls for a quick end to wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, wants war dollars home: here.

The US Conference of Mayors approved a resolution on Monday calling for a quick end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and transfer of the $129 billion (£80bn) spent on those wars each year to job-creating domestic programmes: here.

James Russell, Truthout: “Peace activists won a major victory on Monday, June 20, when the US Conference of Mayors voted to adopt two resolutions that call for a drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Both resolutions also demand the reprioritization of defense spending, including the $126 billion spent each year in Iraq and Afghanistan, toward the needs of municipalities. The group, which represents mayors of municipalities with 30,000 or more residents, has not passed such a resolution in 40 years. While the antiwar resolution was subject to vote after a contentious proposal to pull it, the nuclear weapons resolution passed unanimously, according to observers”: here.

The war in Iraq has cost US taxpayers more than $800bn since the start of the 2003 invasion: here.

6 thoughts on “Art in war-torn occupied Iraq

  1. Seven injured in attack on French

    IRAQ: Militants attacked a convoy of French embassy staff with a homemade bomb as they travelled through central Baghdad today, wounding seven.

    Four Iraqi private security guards working for the embassy were wounded, along with three bystanders.

    Bombings have been on the rise since the beginning of 2011.

    There were an average of 10 violent incidents a day in May, up from four or five a day in January.


  2. Two more US soldiers killed

    IRAQ: Guerillas killed two US troops in northern Iraq on Sunday, the US military has reported.

    No further details were immediately available, and the names of the dead are being withheld pending notification of next of kin.

    Militants have killed eleven US troops have died this month.

    Since the US-led invasion of 2003 at least 4,465 US soldiers have died in the country.


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