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Iraqi artists tell their story after pulling art from the Berlin Biennale


A mural in Baghdad depicting the late Iraqi artist Mahood Ahmed, one of many painted by Wijdan al-Majed in the city.  (Alice Martins for the Washington Post)
A mural in Baghdad depicting the late Iraqi artist Mahood Ahmed, one of many painted by Wijdan al-Majed in the city. (Alice Martins for the Washington Post)

BAGHDAD — When three Iraqi artists were invited to exhibit their work at this year’s Berlin Biennale, the organizing themes – decolonization and reparation – promised to give voice to a subject the trio understood better than most.

Each had grown up in the shadow of the 2003 American invasion, and their art now struggles with its consequences. A film by Layth Kareem explored community trauma and healing. Sajjad Abbas brought a banner emblazoned with a picture of his eye, which he had once hung in front of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, meant to symbolize the Iraqi experience of watching the $2 trillion occupation.

But when the group entered the exhibition hall, a different installation on Iraq imposed itself: a series of war trophies taken by American soldiers – photographs of the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners in inside Abu Ghraib prison – presented by a French artist to shock gallery visitors.

“There was just this idea that this is what’s good for us – this is what’s good for the world – just to see these images again,” said Iraqi-American art curator Rijin Sahakian, who introduced the artists to the organizers of the exhibition.

The episode raises uncomfortable questions: Who has been allowed to tell Iraq’s recent history on the world stage? And where is the work of the Iraqi artists who live it?

“All we asked for was to have a voice that wasn’t spoken,” Sahakian said. “The participating Iraqi artists have just been grouped together with the photographs.”

Although a small number of Iraqi artists exhibit their work internationally, visual depictions of the country are generally dominated by Western media.

Iraqi artists were once among the most famous in the region. In 1951, Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group as they sought a distinctive Iraqi artistic identity, blending modernist styles with local history and motifs.

But over time, their work was co-opted by political forces, and by the late 1980s Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party dominated the art scene and used it for propaganda purposes.

Today, the Iraqi government is one of the most corrupt in the world. Utilities are failing, the power grid is on its knees, and extreme heat is destroying land that once provided food and jobs.

Climate migrants flee Iraq’s arid rural south, but cities offer no refuge

As a new generation of Iraqis strive to tell their own stories through contemporary art, they face obstacles at every turn.

Baghdad’s yellow-brick Institute of Fine Arts only teaches classical methods, so students embarking on new mediums should use whatever space they can find. They work at home, on rooftops or together in small studios, often with limited funds and little storage space for the pieces they produce.

Private galleries exist but are difficult to break into, often requiring personal connections and money for advertising. Grant funding requires applications in fluent English. When international opportunities arise, many artists find that they cannot obtain visas for their own exhibitions.

“It takes a lot of time and networking,” said Hella Mewis, a German-born art curator from Baghdad. “You have to know the system, the art market and it’s very complicated.”

But the city has a refuge: Beit Tarkib, or the House of Settlement, nestled in the historic district of Karrada between old Jewish houses and tall palm trees. Founded by Mewis in 2015, the place is dedicated to contemporary art, with studios for artists and spaces for young people to learn drawing techniques, ballet and musical instruments.

From each wall, the work of the artists presents the contours of Iraqi life. Photographs and sculptures trace the changing face of Baghdad. A Sumerian-style house brush invites visitors to sweep away the judgment of a sometimes closed and conservative society. In one room, an oil painting of a soiled white shirt captures intimate details of what a person experiences when a car bomb tears up an ordinary day.

During a recent visit by a Palestinian artist, he described the tone of the work as distinct from the rest of the region, Mewis recalls. “Here, he said that with each artist, you can see that they are Iraqis. There are different styles, but you don’t see the western influence,” she said. “That’s the best compliment we’ve ever received.”

In April 2019, they displayed their artwork in public gardens on Abu Nawas Street, and the exhibits sounded like a cry against corruption and stifled ambition.

Looking back, Mewis realized, it took the pulse of a society on the brink of revolt. Seven months later, small protests against state corruption turned into a full-scale uprising against the political system, and artists joined Iraqis from all walks of life.

Baghdad revolutionaries build a beach

After more than 600 people were killed in a government crackdown, protesters etched this story onto walls. Near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a gray stone underpass has become a riot of color. The murals showed the names and faces of the dead, in gold calligraphy and black and white sketches.

Zaid Saad was among the artists exhibiting at this 2019 festival, and the 31-year-old’s work – concrete molded suitcases – focused on the rejection Iraqis face when trying to reach Europe or America.

One day, he wants this work to be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

During his years of study at the Institut des Beaux-Arts, he plans future projects with his friends. But amid growing economic desperation, at least 10 of them boarded migrant boats bound for Europe in 2015.

Some members of the group died at sea. Others did, but fell out of contact.

Millions of Iraqis have left the country since 2003, fleeing violence and poverty.

In the entrance hall of Beit Tarkib is a work that Saad used to reflect this loss: a white door near the central bank on Rasheed Street has been fixed to the wall, and a half-wheel of a bicycle protrudes from the wood towards the viewer.

“It’s about our plans and how they stuck with me,” he said, looking at the spokes of the half wheel. “The other half has passed into another world, and I can’t see what’s there.”

Saad makes his sculptures outdoors now that the summer heat has died down. A spotlight illuminates the patio like a stage. The process is calm, sometimes meditative, as he merges water with cement and the mixture coats his hand like a glove.

One recent night, a driver honked in the street, but Saad was absorbed in his work. “I think about so many things while doing this,” he said.

Her last piece for exhibition was, again, about migration, and her friends were always on her mind. “Some of them trusted me so much that they told me they were leaving before telling their families,” he said.

His job was almost done and he poured the rest of the concrete into his mold.

“I always feel sad when I read news about refugees,” he said.

“Is it so bad to let people in?”

washingtonpost Gt

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