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In Starving Iraq, Art Thrives

by Kim Ghattas

Slow Motion Genocide in Iraq
(IPS) BAGHDAD -- The image of Iraq today is of a country under siege, of Iraqis selling their belongings for basic medication and children dying by the thousands.

But amid the misery, sadness and bitterness at what Iraq has become after 10 years of a United Nations embargo, a booming trade in artwork is thriving.

Driving around Baghdad, art galleries seem to be everywhere. Although Iraq has always had an artistic tradition, the embargo seems to have catalyzed creativity. From two galleries before the embargo, Baghdad now boasts 25.

They are a reminder of what Iraq was before the UN-imposed sanctions, which came following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. This is where old Mesopotamia lay, where one of the seven wonders of the world, the gardens of Babylon, was located. Sometimes called the "cradle of civilization," Iraq was home to the Sumerians, the Assyrians and others.

This rich history has been handed down to Iraq's contemporary artists, who are today striving to maintain their art under the embargo.

"Before the embargo, artists painted for the sake of art. They produced maybe three to four paintings a year and often chose not sell them," says Ghayath el Jazairi, director of the Inaa' art gallery on Abu Nawwas street. Al Inaa' opened in 1995.

"Now artists can produce up to 20 paintings a year because they have to support their families. But the quality has not diminished to the expense of quantity. On the contrary, it has given them more experience, they are experimenting with different techniques and styles," he adds.

What has diminished is necessary materials. Prices have doubled and sometimes tripled, and quality has diminished greatly. But Jazairi says there is a lot of solidarity between the artists since the embargo.

"Some artists had reserves of paint, so when the embargo came, for example, they traded their red oil paint for a big canvas, because paint doesn't keep well too long anyway," he says.

Art of "the embargo generation" is observed with great interest and admiration
Until 1990, Iraqi artists had a special place in society, and their work was encouraged by the state. Iraqi artists are well-known around the world and are thought by some to be the best in the Arab world.

Before the embargo, artists were provided with material free of charge with no conditions put on their work. One Western diplomat described Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, now blamed for the state his country is in, as a visionary despot.

In the 1930s when the Iraqi monarchy was put in place, artists were sent to study in Europe. They are now regarded as the pioneers of Iraqi art. Every generation of artists has its style, and that of the embargo generation is observed with great interest and admiration.

"I am impressed, moved by their creation," says Francis Dubois, the UN Development Program (UNDP) resident representative in Baghdad, who is an admirer of Iraqi art.

"They have no paper, no pens, no colors, they suffer, and still they create and it's really good. Comfort is the enemy of art and creation, it's difficult living conditions that create art. Desperate people want to hold onto something, some choose religion but here a lot have chosen art," he adds.

For Samira Abdel Wahab, a renowned artist who started in the mid-1980s, the embargo has made artists determined to overcome the difficult conditions.

"Suffering gives me the power to create. It's inspiration. Joy doesn't, it's too superficial," she says. Abdel Wahab lost two of her sons in the mid-1990s, and says that her pain has made her "a real artist."

Iraqi paintings are mostly modern, somewhere between abstract and figurative. The colors vary, from very dark browns and blacks to bright blues and reds. There is very rarely a direct representation of Iraq's present situation, and government propaganda is absent from arts exhibited at privately owned galleries.

"Artists have their own way of expressing their sadness. Bright red in my paintings is a symbol of the intense internal hemorrhage I felt in my heart when my sons died. Blue is the sadness, the blues of the embargo," says Abdel Wahab.

There are also depictions of nude figures -- something that is unthinkable in neighboring Islamic countries. Iraq is a relatively secular state, especially compared to countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Under Islam, representation of the face or body is forbidden.

Nonetheless, the conditions of creation are not easy for the Iraqi artists. Standards of living have dropped precipitously since 1990, the protein intake has decreased by half and 500,000 children under five have died.

While Iraqis were enthusiastic art collectors before the embargo, and Baghdad had its own version of the prestigious Christie's auction house, today most buyers of Iraqi art are the few foreigners, Arab and Westerners, who find their way into embargoed Iraq.

There are also dozens of exiled Iraqi artists scattered around the world.

At one of the newer galleries, which also has a cafˇ where artists gather, a group of women are sitting, chatting and sipping hot tea.

"We use to worry about existential questions, life, death, human nature," says artist Mezgen Aziz, a Kurd from northern Iraq. "Now all we think about is food, clothes, survival."

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Albion Monitor January 29, 2001 (

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