Art: Another Casualty In Iraq

Dreams in a War Zone - Painting by Esam Pasha
“Dreams in a War Zone.” Esam Pasha. Oil on board. Circa 2004.

Two years after the US “liberated” Iraq, artists in that beleaguered nation are barely hanging on.

Having survived the long night of Saddam and the “shock and awe” blitzkrieg of the Americans, Iraqi artists today are fighting a losing battle against occupation, terrorism, and the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Back in July of 2004, the artists of Iraq were fairing the chaos in their occupied country. The Hewar Gallery in Baghdad and its owner Qassim al-Sabti, had recently received financial assistance from a relief agency connected to the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID); the gallery was awarded $75,000.

Ostensibly for the training of artists and the modernization of the gallery, the contribution is sure to anger those extremists dedicated to driving all western influence from the country. One must admire Qasim al-Sabti’s bravery, and also fear for his life, which must be said for all the artists living in Iraq.

Not that long ago some considered Iraq the leading Arab country in the art world, with its artists exploring a wide range of modernist styles. Under the iron fist of Saddam Hussein, artists remained surprisingly free to create daring works… just so long as they avoided criticizing the regime. The international art world was silent over the imprisonment and disappearances of Iraqi artists.

When Saddam’s government fell to the guns of the US, artists hoped for a peaceful and democratic future, but their hopes did not last for long. Prior to the US occupation, wealthy Iraqi families and foreigners were the main patrons of the arts. But today, anyone with money has left the country for obvious reasons, and the only foreigners in town don’t exactly have art on their minds.

Iraqi artists have been left with virtually no support. Qasim al-Sabti says that artists are now censoring themselves out of fear, avoiding creating nudes or taking on other subjects that might offend Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. “Iraqi artists took their precautions and decided no more pictures with nude women or men or drawing any erotic subjects, as they know they will be either killed or kidnapped.” Al-Sabti has also said many artists today are turning to painting religious works for clerics in order to survive.

One of history’s great ironies is that George W. Bush, while promising liberty for Iraq, has instead delivered it into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. US backed elections in Iraq swept a Shia-dominated regime to power that is closely linked to Iran, which not too long ago Mr. Bush declared a terrorist nation and a member of the “axis-of-evil.” Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, visited Iran to lay a wreath at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini—the man who branded America “the Great Satan.”

The new Iraqi constitution being drafted by a special working group of Iraqi leaders makes Sharia law the basis for future governance. That prospect is not exactly thrilling to Iraqi women, human rights activists, and those who embrace pluralism and democracy. Already posters of Ayatollah Khomeini are plastered all over the south of Iraq, where “religious police” publicly whip and beat women who do not wear a veil. No wonder Iraqi artists are censoring themselves.

Surely American lives are not being sacrificed in Iraq in order to defend a regime of religious zealots. If that is not the mission—then please tell me exactly what is. As I write this 44 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq in just the last 10 days, bringing the total killed in action to 1,845.

With over 100,000 civilians killed in the war so far, the tone of Iraqi artworks has become cheerless and despondent. Shaddad Abdul Qahar has stopped using color in his paintings, preferring instead to paint almost exclusively with the color black.

Nasir Thamer creates sculptures of eyeless heads, the mouths and ears plugged with bullets. Esam Pasha’s paintings are inward looking meditations meant as a personal safe haven from the constant horror. His Dreams in a War Zone (shown above), is indicative of the gloom swallowing up Iraqi artists. In the painting a coffin born aloft by wings of human hands takes flight into the sky… death’s release providing the only hope.

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