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Creative Migration:
Iraqi Art Appears In London, Disappears in Baghdad

Nazli Tarzi
For the first time Iraqi artists are exhibiting at Art16, an international art fair in London. But while they’ve been well received in Europe, Iraq’s once-vibrant arts scene continues to shrink.
26.05.2016  |  London
Art by Kurdish photojournalist Julie Adnan's series “You may go” captures ordinary people posing next to touristy photographs of countries they dream of travelling to.
Art by Kurdish photojournalist Julie Adnan's series “You may go” captures ordinary people posing next to touristy photographs of countries they dream of travelling to.

With all of the problems that Iraq currently faces, there is a risk that the country’s art scene will disappear entirely. This is the widely felt fear among Iraqis artists still working inside the country.

At the same time Iraqi art is on display at Art16, an annual art fair in London that opened May 19, for the first time. The work is on sale along with pieces from a further 100 galleries from 33 different countries. The Iraqi art, which was brought to London by the non-profit Ruya Foundation, has already been well reviewed – London’s The Art Newspaper described the Iraqi offerings as among “the strongest presentations”, which “come courtesy of the unconventional and non-profit projects”.

But while a generous spotlight has been shone on the Iraqi artwork in London, Iraqis artists describe a different situation at home. Many have great ideas, but few prospects.

The art centres, associations, academies and galleries the war flattened, have not been rebuilt and appreciation for what artists do has also diminished, independent fine artist Qassim Sabti told NIQASH.

On the one hand ignorance in Iraq enables artists to thrive, but risks are involved, if as an artist, you express controversial ideas.

The government is disinterested in funding and promoting art production, Sabti says. “It's task instead is to the encourage religious absurdities of the religious elites, set on retarding growth, with mindsets still stuck in the past instead of focusing on the future.”

“One cannot imagine that Baghdad was once considered one of the most culturally vibrant cities, when listening to news today," Sabti notes.

Echoing this is Iraqi calligrapher, Mohammad al-Nouri, who lives and practices in Dubai. "Art today", he told NIQASH, "has unfortunately regressed. Although we still find highly talented and impressive young artists, what we don't have is the people to fund them, therefore people will naturally move into jobs they and their families can survive on.”

The Ruya Foundation wants to help change this. Art16 offers a “commercial platform” for Iraqi talent,  the organisation's chair, Tamara Chalabi, told NIQASH.

The Foundation is one of several non-profit exhibitors invited to join this year’s fair. Traditionally the contemporary Iraqi art scene outside the country has been united by the experience of exile but this show is different; many of the artists on display still live inside the country.

Art in Iraq before the 1990s was quite visibly at the service of politics but it would be as invalid as it would be denigrating to conclude this art was entirely about Saddam Hussein-era nationalism or Hussein’s Baath party. Beyond the sphere of state propaganda, art also existed, with greater openness. Creative professions were generously funded, and widely practiced, including fashion, calligraphy, ceramics, sculpture, and poetry. Yet today all of these are fading. The Iraqi Ministry of Culture is a ghost of what it once was, it's budget non-existent, while it accomplishes little beyond small exhibitions it hosts on its own grounds. And press coverage often skips news about artists, whose history as an intellectual force in Iraqi society only receives scattered references.

Approaching the Iraqi stand at Art16, one is immediately struck by the generous assortment of colours and styles – Assyrian themed pottery by Qassim Hamza and embroidery by Duha al-Katib (below) – and symbols Iraq has come to be known for. Each represents a different phase in the country's history.

Embroidery and textile art by Duha al-Katib

The process of selection, Chalabi explains, "was done on the basis of what we thought would be most reflective of the things that we as a foundation care about". The collection incorporates works by Iraqis from many different sectors of society under one roof.

Of all the mediums, photography speaks the loudest; it is an art that is more accessible to people of a country where art materials are hard to come by. Chalabi also has a theory about the recent resurgence of photography: the youth deploy it as a way “to mark themselves apart from the older generation".

We see this in Ayman al-Amiri's Night Workers series from 2013 and 2014 (below). His A5 prints tackle the taboo phenomenon of prostitution, bringing into focus Iraqi prostitutes, while concealing their faces with ornate Venetian masks. The photos are hardly risqué. Instead, they situate the women against the backdrop of their daily lives in public spaces, suffused with intimacy. Access for al-Amiri was a stumbling block that brought the 21-year old into direct negotiations with the pimps his subjects work for, to gain admission into an otherwise off-limits underworld. The masks they wore were chosen by the artist. 

One of the Night Workers series by Ayman al-Amiri, depicting Baghdad's prostitutes, masked.

One of the Night Workers series by Ayman al-Amiri, depicting Baghdad's prostitutes, masked.

Kurdish photojournalist, Julie Adnan's series, You may go, from 2010 plays on the transient nature of photography. Her two hanging prints, one monochrome and the other bursting with colour, capture ordinary people posing next to touristy photographs of countries they dream of travelling, or migrating, to. While her subjects are anchored in their native lands, the prints allow them to cross borders.

While surveying the works, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that as wealthy buyers flock to purchase these pieces, their creators are conspicuous by their absence – with the exception of Berlin-based Nadine Hattom. "It's not that we haven't tried to bring the artists here", Ruya's communications director, Lemma Shehadi explains, "but entry into the UK is just not possible".

The decline of the arts scene in Iraq is continuing, Chalabi says, but artistic resilience has not been stamped out. While hard pressed for safe spaces where they can practice, a failed political system and self-interested politicians have not deterred Iraqi artists from doing what they love most.

On the contrary, these very failings translate into artistic inspiration, that is manifest in the selection of works on display in London. Embedded in some are implicit political statements, which communicate their own message to saboteurs, terrorists and corrupt elites.

The message relayed in Sakar Abdullah Sleman’s 2016 installation is apparent from its very title, Read (below). A stack of seven texts neatly wrapped in vibrantly coloured fabric, represent holy scriptures from different faiths. The moral of Sleman's work is that if the propagators of violence were to read these texts they would discover that there are more commonalities than differences.

Read, an installation by Sakar Abdullah Sleman

Read, an installation by Sakar Abdullah Sleman

If the works sell, this will obviously help the Iraqi art scene. But without a local audience, the risk of seeing the Iraqi art scene disappear increases, as more artists consider leaving the country.

As Baghdad-based animator and illustrator, Sajjad Abbas (see artwork below) jokes when asked for his proposed solutions to this problem, the answer is to emigrate. Artists inside the country are on a tightrope.

“On the one hand ignorance towards art in Iraq enables one to thrive, but risks are involved, if as an artist you seek to express controversial ideas relating to society, religion or politics," Abbas concludes.

The canvases, prints, embroidery, ceramics, installations proudly shown in London’s Olympia neighbourhood celebrate a living, breathing community of artists, who, in Sabti words, "remain and practice, without recognition".

An animation by Baghdad-based artist, Sajjad Abbas

An animation by Baghdad-based artist, Sajjad Abbas