As the fine arts student entered the cultural centre on Baghdad’s legendary Mutanabi Street, known to be the city’s hub of intellectual and cultural activity, he burst into loud laughter. A new statue of the Iraqi poet, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, whom Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “one of the Arab world’s all-time finest poets,” had caused his raucous laughter.
The statue of al-Jawahiri sits in a pool, amid a circle of giant coffee pots and coffee cups that are almost as big as the poet’s own torso.
In the middle of chuckling, the student – his name is Mustafa – manages to gasp: “I thought they only made fun of Gilgamesh,” he says, choking with laughter. “But it seems the joke is on al-Jawahiri now, too!”
A few days ago the screens were pulled away from this new statue of one of Iraq’s best known sons - al-Jawahiri was a resistor against former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and spent much of his life in exile; he died in 1997. The statue was made by local sculptor Majid al-Sabbagh.
But not everyone is laughing.
“This monument is just embarrassing,” says local artist, painter Zubayda Utaimesh. “It makes al-Jawahiri look like a coffee seller in the neighbourhood. It is just another example of how authorities treat culture here: it is degraded and used cynically and sarcastically.”
Writer and journalist, Mushreq Abbas, who manages the Iraq bureau of the daily pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, says he stood still, shocked, when he first saw the statue. “I couldn’t react,” he says. “I couldn’t laugh or cry. I was just shocked.”
“These art works reflect the reality of Iraq today,” Abbas told NIQASH. “It is about how things have deteriorated in all areas of life, it is about prolonged social disintegration. These monuments are just symbols of how every aspect of Iraqi life is getting worse.”
Al-Jawahiri’s own family was so offended by the supposed monument to their deceased father that his son, Kifah al-Jawahiri, sent a letter to the governor of Baghdad asking him to remove or alter the statue.
“The monument has no true understanding of al-Jawahiri’s ideas or his poetry,” al-Jawahiri junior told NIQASH. “This monument has nothing in common with him or his work!”
The poet’s granddaughter, Furat al-Jawahiri, told NIQASH that the symbolism was inappropriate. It looks like he is a Bedouin, she says. “It has nothing to do with my real grandfather.”
Iraqis on social media have discussed the statue too. Most of their comments focus on al-Jawahiri’s statue but they also talk about another statue that upset a lot of people: A statue of Gilgamesh, an ancient king and the fifth ruler of Iraq, or ancient Uruk, has also been the subject of much debate. Critics say it looks as though the epic Iraqi hero is carrying a satellite dish around.
“It’s a caricature,” says writer Hassan Aboud, one of the regulars down on Mutanabi Street. “Why is Gilgamesh, an important historical symbol, carrying a satellite dish around? If the sculptor had even bothered to read the Epic of Gilgamesh – which is one of the oldest surviving stories on earth – he would surely have figured out some other way of representing this very important, historical work of literature.”
Comments on Facebook range from laughter and sarcasm – one social media user wrote, “pour some coffee for us” and another asked, “have we really run out of ideas?” - to genuine despair at the tacky state of the statues.
“Baghdad assassinated Jawahiri twice. Once when it forced him into exile, away from the Tigris and another time by making for him a pathetic statue that is unworthy of his history,” Iraqi writer and poet, Omar al-Jaffal, who also edits two magazines, wrote.
“Baghdad went to sleep and when it awoke it found that all the statues and the memorials from the past have changed – or at least, the culture underlying them all has changed. Today al-Jawahiri is a coffee server and freedom is an eggplant,” says al-Jaffal, referring to Basra’s new Freedom Monument, a US$6 million sculpture that, according to its critics, looks like a giant eggplant surrounded by prancing horses that look like they came straight from a carousel.
And it’s not like Baghdadis cannot make beautiful sculptures. The Liberty Monument, celebrating the 1958 Iraqi revolution in Baghdad, by sculptor Jawad Saleem is celebrated around the world as are the sculptural works based on the Middle Eastern fables in 1,001 Nights created by the sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat.
When questioned about the tastefulness and symbolism used in these more recent sculptures, one of the members of Baghdad’s provincial authorities said that the council knew nothing about it. In fact, he added, the council sympathises with al-Jawahiri’s family and they understood the reasons why regulars on Mutanabi Street were complaining. The council was planning to remove or alter the al-Jawahiri statue, he promised.
The people behind this deterioration in taste are those with influence in the various government institutes responsible, said Hassan Jarallah, an academic in the fine arts department at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University.
“After 2003 [and the US-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein], the majority of those who have taken charge of arts and culture have nothing to do with arts and culture,” Jarallah told NIQASH. “Most of them hold their positions because of the ethnic and sectarian quota system.”
The standard procedure for commissioning a public artwork is to ask a number of artists to present their ideas. A special committee then chooses the artwork they consider most suitable and the artist is contracted to do the work. However this procedure has apparently not been used a lot over the past few years in Baghdad.
“There are so many vulgar and ridiculous sculptures and paintings presented over the past few years,” Taha al-Ameri, a lecturer in sculpture at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts, a college that students enter aged around 16 mainly to learn classical sculpture or painting. “And often they don’t even fulfil the least of the art world\'s desires or criteria, and they appear without any critical appreciation.”
Al-Ameri says that this is because those in charge of commissioning these works have no cultural awareness, artistic education or artistic appreciation.
“It is the outcome of ongoing abuse of art and artists in Iraq since 2003,” he concluded.