Baghdad Art Scene Springs to Life as Iraq Seeks Renewal

23 May, 2022
Riyadh Ghe­nea dyp­tych from his recent show at The Gallery in Bagh­dad, in which the Iraqi-Cana­di­an artist paid trib­ute to his late moth­er with a series of abstracts. She “suf­fered all the phas­es that Iraq has been through,” said Gheana, who came back to Bagh­dad in 2011. When he returned, “I found nei­ther my moth­er nor the coun­try that I had left behind” (cour­tesy Riyadh Ghenea/DailySabah).


Hadani Ditmars


As Iraqis wait in yet anoth­er polit­i­cal lim­bo for a clear win­ner to emerge from last fall’s elec­tions, a renewed focus on art and cul­ture in the land of the two rivers claims a small victory.

On the heels of April’s Al-Wasiti fine arts fes­ti­val in Bagh­dad — ini­ti­at­ed in 1972 with long hia­tus­es due to sanc­tions and more recent­ly to mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests — Qasim Sabti, Iraq’s elder states­man of the art world, holds forth in the gar­den of his love­ly al-Hewar Gallery in Wazeriya.

“Since last Decem­ber,” says Sabti, the long-time pres­i­dent of the Iraqi Artists soci­ety, “Bagh­dad has seen an explo­sion of new exhibitions.”

After the well-known Akkad Gallery closed its icon­ic Abu Nawas loca­tion in 2011, own­er Haider Hashem re-opened the gallery in a new loca­tion in Kar­radeh this past March, not far from The Gallery, Baghdad’s biggest new art space that opened last fall under the aus­pices of the Al Han­dal group. At the same time, two promi­nent pri­vate col­lec­tors with a wealth of 20th and 21st cen­tu­ry Iraqi art opened Bagh­da­da Gallery on Alnad­hal street, between Bab al Shorji and Kar­radeh, in the offices of a Catholic church. Mean­while Anaween Gallery was opened by a local film­mak­er in 2021 in Adhimiya.

Now gal­leries are open in the evening for the first time in years due to increased secu­ri­ty and Kar­radeh has replaced Abu Nawas as the new gallery neighborhood.

It’s cer­tain­ly hap­py news that Bagh­dad is now expe­ri­enc­ing more art shows than car bombs, espe­cial­ly com­ing from Sabti, a pre­em­i­nent artist, gal­lerist, and sur­vivor of Iraq’s fick­le for­tunes. The wily bohemi­an — who lives, works, and exhibits in a 1920s vil­la once owned by Iraq’s min­is­ter of defense under King Faisal — is a shrewd busi­ness­man as well as an artist. When I first met him in the wake of the 2003 inva­sion, he boast­ed that both Paul Bre­mer and Sad­dam Hus­sein had been vis­i­tors to his gallery. “They were both here,” he recount­ed. “They came and ate maz­gouf with me in the gar­den.” In many ways, the al-Hewar Gallery is a cru­cible of Iraqi culture.

Stu­dents at Bagh­dad’s Col­lege of Fine Arts (pho­to Hadani Ditmars).

Then a pop­u­lar post-inva­sion spot for Euro­pean diplo­mats and U.N. work­ers, the gallery — locat­ed a few min­utes from the Col­lege of Fine Arts — attract­ed dozens of young artists for after­noon tea in the ad hoc gar­den café. But as the real­i­ty of post-inva­sion life grew dark­er, there were few­er and few­er buy­ers; right across the street was the Turk­ish embassy, which would be bombed not long after my first visit.

The art­work then was still very much in a dec­o­ra­tive vein. A would-be Iraqi Cha­gall exhib­it­ed her paint­ing of a live­ly gyp­sy dance. Sabti’s own work fea­tured fan­tas­ti­cal crea­tures dredged up from Sumer­ian mythol­o­gy. The only works that offered even a hint of dark­ness were an abstract oil paint­ing with sug­ges­tions of flames and smoke, and a sculp­ture of spy-like fig­ures hav­ing a clan­des­tine meet­ing. When pressed, Sabti offered a cryp­tic inter­pre­ta­tion. “We artists now are like a man hold­ing a dove between two fires — one beside us and one in the dis­tance. We can­not fight either fire, so we’d rather play with the dove.”

Peo­ple came to his gallery, said Sabti, to escape the vio­lent real­i­ty of dai­ly life and to cel­e­brate the sur­vival of Iraqi cul­ture rather than to be remind­ed of the strug­gle to sur­vive. I even staged and per­formed in a  con­cert there in Octo­ber of 2003 with Iraqi cel­list Karim Was­fi, a fundrais­er for a project called “gar­den of peace” — aimed at assist­ing dis­placed women and chil­dren — that would ulti­mate­ly be foiled by secu­ri­ty con­cerns. But explod­ing cars and dead­ly sta­tis­tics did not seem to inter­rupt Sabti’s gen­teel rou­tine in the least. The al-Hewar stayed open through the worst of the trou­bles and even staged an exhi­bi­tion in the sum­mer of 2004 called the Abu Gulag Free­dom Park.

The his­to­ry of Iraqi art has been inex­orably tied to its pol­i­tics. Under King Faisal, in spite of the famed Iraqi pio­neers like Faeq Has­san, there was a trend toward inof­fen­sive tra­di­tion­al dec­o­ra­tive art­work, pic­tures of hors­es and the like for wealthy clients. When Abdul Qarim Kassem came to pow­er, strong, more overt­ly polit­i­cal works like Jawad Salim’s Tahrir Square — also a ral­ly­ing point for recent protests — were born. A vogue for pub­lic art and murals gave way to a peri­od of art that glo­ri­fied Sad­dam. Apo­lit­i­cal abstract expres­sion­ism last­ed for a very long time in Iraq after it had fall­en out of favor in the West.

But the Iran/Iraq war, says Sabti, “shook the soul of many young artists.”

Qasim Sabti (left) holds court at Al Hewar Gallery (pho­to Hadani Ditmars).

While many artists were draft­ed to the front­lines, the era does have some mem­o­rable moments in terms of pub­lic art, notably Ismail Fatah al Turk’s 1983 Mar­tyrs’ Mon­u­ment — an ele­gant turquoise dome, evoca­tive of the Abbasid era, split in two and mount­ed at the cen­ter of an arti­fi­cial lake. The icon­ic sculp­ture was pre­ced­ed by 1982’s Mon­u­ment to an Unknown Sol­dier, by Ital­ian archi­tect Mar­cel­lo D’Olivo, based on a con­cep­tu­al design by Iraqi sculp­tor Khaled al Rahal and 1989’s Vic­to­ry Arch, a pair of giant arms with crossed swords fea­tur­ing the hel­mets of cap­tured Iran­ian sol­diers at the base. The offi­cial name of the tri­umphal arch­es, the Swords of Qādisiyyah, is an allu­sion to the sev­enth cen­tu­ry bat­tle when Arab armies defeat­ed Sas­sanid Iran and cap­tured their cap­i­tal Cte­si­phone, where an arch marks the entrance to the ancient Impe­r­i­al Palace. It was designed in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sad­dam Hus­sein first by Al-Rahal and then, after his death by Mohammed Ghani Hikmat.

Iron­i­cal­ly, it was the end of the war and the begin­ning of the embar­go era that marked a cul­tur­al renais­sance of sorts, as artists returned from war to sanc­tions and eco­nom­ic collapse.

When the al-Hewar gallery opened in 1992, it was only the sec­ond pri­vate gallery after the Orfali cen­ter in what had been a heav­i­ly state-sub­si­dized scene. “A move­ment of Iraqi artists grew from this place,” says Sabti. “Artists made more than state employ­ees and had lots of time to paint.” The wait­ing list for a show was over a year and exhi­bi­tions enjoyed long runs.

Dur­ing the embar­go, notes Sabti, “there was sud­den­ly a big mar­ket for Iraqi art” — albeit main­ly from UN employ­ees who admin­is­tered the infa­mous oil-for-food pro­gram, and whose bloat­ed salaries were tak­en from Iraqi oil rev­enues, while aver­age Iraqis were allot­ted a mis­er­able dai­ly sub­sis­tence. Still, dozens of new gal­leries opened in the late ‘90s and ear­ly 2000s as for­eign­ers snatched up Iraqi art.

Art on dis­play at Al Hewar (pho­to cour­tesy Qasim Sabti).

After the 2003 inva­sion, secu­ri­ty issues forced most of the new gal­leries to close down, the al-Hewar except­ed. The al Wasiti fes­ti­val, named for the famed 13th cen­tu­ry Bagh­da­di artist, van­ished dur­ing the embar­go and enjoyed a sin­gle iter­a­tion in 2010. It resur­faced in 2017 and 2018, but was post­poned in 2019 and 2021 due to the anti-gov­ern­ment protest move­ment which in turn pro­duced its own art. The Turk­ish Restau­rant build­ing — itself a bombed out sur­vivor of 2003 — has now become a sec­u­lar shrine, full of hope­ful murals and angry graf­fi­ti, perched behind Tahrir Square.

The cur­rent art “explo­sion” Sabti men­tions is the hap­py result of a hybrid mar­riage of state sup­port and pri­vate spon­sor­ship; a revival of the tra­di­tion­al gov­ern­ment fund­ing enjoyed under Saddam’s regime and a new post-inva­sion neolib­er­al­ism — Iraqi style — with a lib­er­al help­ing of state cap­i­tal­ism. Pri­vate bankers with links to the Nation­al Bank of Iraq helped ren­o­vate the his­toric al Mutannabi street and near­by al-Rasheed street/Midan Square. While these areas once shut down at mid­day, now book­shops and cafés stay open until the wee hours, and artists and musi­cians throng the streets. The al-Rashid the­atre has been restored and new murals of promi­nent writ­ers and artists com­mis­sioned by Baghdad’s may­or Alaa Maan last Jan­u­ary can now be found through­out the city.

The re-open­ing of the Iraqi Muse­um in March after a three-year hia­tus due to protests and pan­dem­ic issues, also bodes well, as does the return of cul­tur­al tourism, thanks to a new visa on demand.

Zaha Hadid’s gor­geous and long-await­ed Nation­al Bank build­ing is restor­ing some archi­tec­tur­al panache to the Jadriyah end of Abu Nawas.  But its posi­tion­ing between the new­ly revamped Hotel Baby­lon and the head­quar­ters of a rather noto­ri­ous Iran­ian backed Shia mili­tia speak to ongo­ing trou­bles in a place where many gal­lerists are forced to pay local mili­tias to stay in busi­ness. Mean­while the Sta­tion, a co-work­ing space owned by the Al Han­dal group with ties to both the nation­al and pri­vate banks, who recent­ly opened The Gallery, is also spon­sored by UNESCO.

The rel­a­tive suc­cess of the recent Al-Wasiti fes­ti­val — which brought sev­er­al promi­nent dias­po­ra artists to Bagh­dad as well as the impor­tant Lebanese gal­lerist Saleh Barakat — yet was hasti­ly and hap­haz­ard­ly put togeth­er in two weeks, is also a promis­ing sign. It fol­lowed the appoint­ment of artist Fakher Mohammed as head of the arts sec­tion at the Min­istry of Cul­ture, a post pre­vi­ous­ly occu­pied by a tech­no­crat, not an artist. Mohammed worked with fund­ing from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Pri­vate Banks to ren­o­vate the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art on Haifa Street in time for the festival.

An exhi­bi­tion on dis­play dur­ing the fes­ti­val fea­tured almost 100 pieces of art that were loot­ed from  the  muse­um (or Sad­dam Arts Cen­ter as it was then known) and since recovered.

Tracked down after they were traf­ficked in Switzer­land, the U.S., Qatar and neigh­bor­ing Jor­dan, the sculp­tures and paint­ings, dat­ing between the 1940s and 1960s, were dis­played in a cav­ernous space that was once a restaurant.

They includ­ed impor­tant works by Fay­iq Has­san and Jawad Sal­im. One piece by Sal­im, depict­ing a woman with a slen­der neck and raised arms and known as the “mater­nal stat­ue” is reput­ed to be worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. It was dis­cov­ered ran­dom­ly at a Bagh­dad antique shop by sculp­tor Taha Wahib, who bought it for just $200 and returned it to the Ministry.

Anoth­er exhi­bi­tion show­cas­ing con­tem­po­rary artists includ­ed many promi­nent artists from the dias­po­ra, among them Ahmed Al-Bahrani, an Iraqi sculp­tor based in Doha show­ing in Bagh­dad for the first time in a decade; Walid Rashid al Qaisi, a con­cep­tu­al artist work­ing with  mixed media nor­mal­ly based in Jor­dan; and Swe­den-based abstract painter Karim Sadoun.

Riyadh Ghe­nea in his Bagh­dad stu­dio (pho­to Hadani Ditmars).

Also includ­ed were Mohammed Al-Kinani, head of the visu­al arts depart­ment at the Col­lege of Fine Arts, who works in acrylic and mixed media; Bagh­dad based expres­sion­ist painter Wad­hah Mad­hi; and Iraqi-Cana­di­an artist Riyadh Ghe­nea (for­mer­ly known as Riyadh Hashim), who took his late mother’s sur­name recent­ly as he worked on a show ded­i­cat­ed to her, evok­ing the divine fem­i­nine and Sumer­ian tra­di­tion. A high­light was the work of abstract painter Ahmed Al Said, an abstract painter who left for Swe­den in 2011 and returned last year who has been chron­i­cling changes in pub­lic spaces in Bagh­dad since 2003.

Young up and com­ing artists also had their work fea­tured dur­ing the Al Wasiti fes­ti­val, includ­ing Aladin Mohammed — known for his sur­re­al­ist explo­rations of Iraqi folk­lore. His work has also been shown at the Akkad and The Gallery, along with work by abstract painter Haider Fakher and sur­re­al­ist Noor Abd. The three will also be part of a group show — still the pre­vail­ing mod­el in a coun­try with a longer his­to­ry of state-spon­sored art than pri­vate gal­leries and solo exhi­bi­tions — spon­sored by the Iraqi Artists Soci­ety in June 2022.

Men­tor­ship of young artists by estab­lished ones con­tin­ues to be an impor­tant part of the Iraqi art scene. At the Bronze Gallery, right across the street from the Col­lege of Fine Arts in Waz­eriya, there is a cur­rent exhi­bi­tion of pot­tery by sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an Akram Nad­ji that has been pop­u­lar with students.

Edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties with dias­po­ra artists con­tin­ue. Lon­don based Hana Mal­lalah just had an open stu­dio at the Min­istry of Cul­ture — the first time in many years that a dias­po­ra artist has done this in Bagh­dad — and Nadim Kufi, an Ams­ter­dam-based artist, will be doing an open stu­dio lat­er in May.

“I’ve been back in Iraq since 2011,” says Sabti’s friend and col­league Riyadh Ghenea.

“Then you had to wait for months to see a show. Now I can’t keep up.”

But who is buy­ing all this new art, I ask?

“The nou­veau riche,” replies Sabti with­out miss­ing a beat, “are the new collectors.”

“They want to invest in art as an alter­na­tive to keep­ing US dol­lars in their pock­et. Now because the econ­o­my is up and down, they think art is a bet­ter investment.”

But the domes­tic mar­ket is tricky for Iraqi artists, says Ghe­nea, as the prices are so low. “I sell most of my work in Van­cou­ver, Jor­dan and the Gulf,” he notes. He recent­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in a group show in Amman and will soon begin a res­i­den­cy in Jeddah.

Ghe­nea has just begun work as a cura­tor at The Gallery, Baghdad’s biggest and newest art space in Kar­radeh that will soon expand to dou­ble its size, after a suc­cess­ful solo show there last fall. He refused to sell any of his work there as the offers were too low. While he could make a bet­ter liv­ing in the West, he says, he stays on in Bagh­dad because of his love for teach­ing at the Fine Arts College.

“I have a duty to bring my inter­na­tion­al expe­ri­ence to Bagh­dad,” he says, not­ing that  many art school teach­ers are still oper­at­ing from a cur­ricu­lum frozen in the 1980s and inspired pri­mar­i­ly by the Iraqi canon of “pio­neers” like Faeq Hassan.

Abd Alrah­man Resan in front of his work at the Bronze Gallery across from Col­lege of Fine Arts (pho­to Hadani Ditmars).

“I ask my stu­dents to think crit­i­cal­ly,” says Ghe­nea,  “not just fol­low rules and imi­tate oth­er artists. I tell them ‘try to be yourself.’”

His stu­dents, says Ghe­nea, are often more aware of what is going on in the art world now than their pro­fes­sors, mak­ing use of social media and YouTube to learn new techniques.

“The new gen­er­a­tion thinks out­side the box,” he explains. “They pho­to­graph and post their work on Insta­gram and Face­book so they don’t need galleries.”

In fact, Iraqi art has found a new life in the dig­i­tal realm. Not just in terms of ini­tia­tives like The Vir­tu­al Muse­um of Iraq but also in the way that social media has con­tributed to nar­row­ing the ever-present gap between Iraqi artists at home and in the diaspora.

“Now Iraqi artists in Lon­don can eas­i­ly exchange ideas with col­leagues in Bagh­dad,” says Ghenea.

While estab­lished UK-based artists like Han­nah Mal­lalah are phys­i­cal­ly bridg­ing the dis­tance between “exile” and “home,” with fre­quent vis­its to Iraq, young up and com­ing artists in the dias­po­ra are mak­ing lib­er­al use of new tech­nolo­gies to cre­ate evoca­tive art.

Gil­gamesh Con­tem­po­rary,” a new mul­ti­me­dia show in Lon­don, is one example.This eco-fem­i­nist take on the epic of Gil­gamesh, by Lon­don based Iraqi artist Asmaa Alan­bari, reimag­ines the ancient sto­ry as a fable about cli­mate change, which is now a greater threat to Iraqi her­itage sites than ISIS as deser­ti­fi­ca­tion and sub­se­quent dams and flood­ing threat­en dozens of ancient sites, and dust storms par­a­lyze the nation.

A col­lage of images inte­grates cuneiform script from the orig­i­nal tale with images of ocean pol­lu­tion,  con­tem­po­rary Lon­don, and social media footage of ISIS destroy­ing Assyr­i­an stat­ues, at once link­ing tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble her­itage, cul­tur­al loss, and dis­place­ment. Orig­i­nal music by Iraqi com­pos­er Layth Sadiq and live accom­pa­ni­ment by Iraqi oud play­er Ehsan Emam and per­for­mance by dancer Yen-Ching Lin (for­mer­ly with the Akram Khan Com­pa­ny) com­plete the mise-en-scène.

Still the vir­tu­al is a pale appari­tion of the actu­al and the atmos­phere of Bagh­dad forms a vital part of Iraqi artistry.

“I am inspired by this city,” says Ghe­nea. “By its smells, col­ors, tex­tures, its his­to­ry and its crowds.”

“And this is still the soul of Bagh­dad, this place,” says Sabti. As young art stu­dents and nightin­gales alike flock to its spa­cious gal­leries and lush gar­dens, it’s hard to dis­agree. Like Iraqi artists, the gallery has weath­ered three decades of war and occu­pa­tion, remain­ing an endur­ing sym­bol of beau­ty and hope.



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