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In Baghdad, art thrives as war hovers
Iraq remains a Mideast force in painting, sculpture and poetry
Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer Thursday, January 2, 2003
Baghdad -- Thick with cigarette smoke, the scene at the Hewar Art Gallery has a familiar feel.
Long-haired artists with goatees and three-day stubble. Elegant women with distracted eyes and languid hauteur. Highbrow bohemians gossiping and glancing at the latest paintings and sculptures. The discreet clinking of coffee cups.
For a while, at least, in this nondescript middle-class neighborhood of eastern Baghdad, you can imagine being closer to Berlin, Paris or New York, unencumbered temporarily by the deprivation, oppression and fear that haunt the country.
You also are in the presence of some of the Mideast's most prized artworks - - from abstract oil painting to powerfully gaunt bronze sculpture to quasi- primitivist assemblage.
The Hewar probably has Iraq's hippest arts scene, but the gallery is not as unusual as it appears. While the country is increasingly coming under siege, dozens of galleries have sprouted up in Baghdad. Iraqi painting and sculpture have become a thriving, if clandestine, export industry, filling museums and private collections throughout the Mideast and even Europe.
The theater also is booming, and even the nation's beleaguered symphony orchestra is drawing packed crowds.
All of this despite -- or in deliberate obliviousness to -- the country's harsh dictatorship and the prospect of another potentially devastating war.
Notable in its almost complete absence from the galleries and museums is any representation of this nation's recent history: the deaths of millions in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 and the 1991 Gulf War, the international sanctions and the privations of dictatorship.
While Iraq has had more than its fill of pain, violence, loss and sorrow, little of it registers in the country's artwork.
For Baghdad's cultural elite, however, this is not simple escapism. It is a deliberate rejection of the mundane, they insist.
NOT JUST 'WAR OR OIL'
"We are not just a country of war or oil," said Qasim Alsabti, a painter who runs Hewar with his wife, Iman Al-Showg, a prominent sculptor.
"We are a proud culture that goes back 6,000 years to the Sumerians. We have been making art for longer than anyone. This is what gives us identity. This is what will make our art last another 1,000 years, when all this war is forgotten."
Some visitors also might expect Iraqi art to be imbued with a Stalinist socialist realism typical of a totalitarian dictatorship. But apart from the omnipresent government-sponsored paintings and statues of President Saddam Hussein, Iraqi art displays a sometimes refreshing, if eerie, independence.
HUSSEIN A NOVELIST
Hussein himself is believed to have written three novels in recent years under pen names -- works viewed by most non-Iraqi critics as amateurish and forgettable. He apparently sees himself as a patron of the arts and has given strict instructions to the nation's cultural authorities to avoid dogmatism.
"The last time anything deliberately political happened was in the 1980s, when an artist made paintings with the blood of soldiers who were fighting in the war against Iran," said an official in the Ministry of Culture, who asked to remain anonymous.
"It was horrible, just the thought of it, and that sort of thing was not encouraged."
Of course, painting with blood might seem like a natural for some Western artists, for the shock value alone. For the Iraqi literati, however, it is merely retrograde.
"We have to forget the black side of life," said Reem Kubaa, a poet, as she sat with the Alsabtis and a group of friends one recent afternoon, sharing a masgouf, or traditional Iraqi fish fry, in Hewar's leafy courtyard. "If our art is black, that means we are stopped. We are not doing our job as artists."
When a visitor remarks that Iraqi artists might have ample inspiration to produce a latter-day "Guernica," -- Picasso's anguished masterpiece on the Spanish Civil War -- Kubaa snapped back: "Times have changed. It's very important for us to not cry over spilt milk. We have to prove to the world that we are a culture. We are greater than our suffering."
PAINTING, SCULPTURE, POETRY
Although Iraq has never been known in the Mideast for producing high- quality fiction or film -- fields that are dominated by Egypt and Iran -- it is viewed as the region's leader in painting, sculpture and poetry. In these fields, Iraqi artists reached their modern-day zenith in the 1950s and 1960s, then declined in the 1980s and finally revived in the 1990s.
Although the international economic sanctions on Iraq have reduced artists' contacts with the outside world, many say their influences are eclectic. When asked which foreign artworks have influenced his work, sculptor Ahmed Al-Safi mentioned the Popol Vuh, the epic poem of Central America's Mayan Indians, as well as Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the ancient Sumerians and Irish singer Enya.
Al-Safi's bronze sculptures are among the most socially conscious -- thin figures walking in hoops, never going anywhere, always solitary, imbued with what Al-Safi calls "a lack of hope."
However, some of the artistic choices stem from simple market economics. With the Iraqi economy in shambles, many artists depend on the tastes of foreign buyers.
Haider Wady, a sculptor who, along with Al-Safi, is a leader in Iraq's new generation of artists in their 20s and 30s, admits that "nearly all" of his clients are foreigners -- either diplomats and aid workers living in Baghdad or people who buy his works when he shows them at exhibitions in Amman, Damascus and Cairo.
"We are selling for an international audience. We have to go farther than Iraq, farther than our small problems," he said.
BOOM TIMES FOR ACTORS
There also has been a boom in domestic art appreciation, in part because imported entertainment has become harder to get. Since 1990, when U.N. sanctions were imposed, nearly all foreign movies have been unavailable. As a result, most of Baghdad's cinemas have been converted to stage theater. Now, with about 30 theaters producing everything from slapstick burlesque to serious drama, times have never been better for Iraqi actors.
Government largesse also has helped. The Ministry of Culture gives handsome salaries to many artists and actors -- even those who have yet to achieve prominence, said Mais Kumer, lead actress in a long-running Baghdad stage comedy, "I Saw It With My Own Eyes," and a prominent figure on state-run television.
Kumer's play, which mixes slapstick with high melodrama, is an example of how political content increases as one descends the artistic ladder toward mass taste. "I Saw It With My Own Eyes" tells of Martians who arrive on Earth to warn the oblivious, happy-go-lucky Earthlings that an evil empire named America is plotting to wage nuclear war and enslave the world.
And when asked about political boundaries -- for example, whether Hussein is off-limits as a target for jokes -- Kumer answered in a way that suggested how deep the roots of authority penetrate, even among artists.
"There's no reason to ever criticize the president, of course," she said. "But he met with us several weeks ago, and he told us that nothing is off- limits, not even government ministers. He told us to be artists, to be comedians, to say what we want to say and not worry about the consequences. But yes, there are two things we never criticize -- teachers and parents."
Asked why those are sacred cows, Kumer answered: "Because the president gave us strict instructions that they cannot be criticized. The children might be watching, and they might be influenced. We are a high culture, with high responsibilities."
E-mail Robert Collier at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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