Iraqi artists tell their story after pulling art from Berlin Biennale

A mural in Baghdad depicts the late Iraqi painter Mahood Ahmed, one of several painted in the city by Wijdan al-Majed.  (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)
A mural in Baghdad depicts the late Iraqi painter Mahood Ahmed, one of several painted in the city by Wijdan al-Majed. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

BAGHDAD – When three Iraqi artists are invited to exhibit their work at this year’s Berlin Biennale, the organizing themes – decolonization and repair – promise to give voice to a theme the trio understands better. chief.

Each grew up in the shadow of the 2003 US invasion, and their art now grapples with its aftermath. A film by Layth Kareem that explores trauma and healing in the community. Sajjad Abbas carried a banner in the shape of his eye, which he once hung facing Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, meant to symbolize the Iraqi experience of witnessing the occupation’s worth 2 trillion dollars.

But as the group entered the gallery, another Iraq installation emerged at its biggest: a series of war trophies taken by American soldiers – photographs of the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners. . inside Abu Ghraib . prison – presented by a French artist to shock gallery visitors.

“There is an opinion that this is a good thing for us – this is a good thing for the world,” said Iraqi-American art curator Rijin Sahakian, who introduced the artists to the exhibition organizers. – just to review these images.

The episode focuses on uncomfortable questions: Who has been allowed to re-enact Iraq’s recent history on the world stage? And where are the works of Iraqi artists living?

“All we asked for was an unspoken voice,” says Sahakian. “Participating Iraqi artists are only grouped together by photographs.”

Although a small number of Iraqi artists exhibit their work internationally, representations of the country are often dominated by the Western media.

Iraqi artists were once among the most popular in the region. In 1951, Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group as they sought a distinctive Iraqi artistic identity, blending modern style with local history and motifs.

But over time their work was co-opted by political forces, and by the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party had dominated the art scene and used it for propaganda.

Today, the Iraqi government is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Public services are failing, power grids are on their knees and extreme heat is destroying land that once provided food and jobs.

Climate migrants flee Iraq’s arid countryside, but cities have no refuge

As a new generation of Iraqis working to tell their own stories through contemporary art, they face obstacles at every turn.

Baghdad’s gold-tiled Academy of Fine Arts teaches only classical methods, so students taking up new mediums must use whatever space they can find. They work from home, on rooftops or together in small studios, often with limited funds and meager storage space for the works they produce.

Private galleries exist but are difficult to penetrate, often requiring a personal connection and money to go public. Funding requires applications in fluent English. As international opportunities arose, many artists found that they could not get visas for their own exhibitions.

“It takes a lot of network and time,” said Hella Mewis, a German art curator in Baghdad. “You need to know the system, the art market and it’s complicated.”

But the city has a paradise: Beit Tarkib, or House of Arrangement, is tucked away in the historic district of Karrada among old Jewish houses and tall palm trees. Founded by Mewis in 2015, the venue is dedicated to nurturing contemporary art, with studios for artists and spaces for young people to learn drawing, ballet, and musical instruments.

From every wall, works by artists show the contours of Iraqi life. Photographs and sculptures show the changing face of Baghdad. The Sumerian-style broom invites visitors to sweep away the condemnation of a sometimes closed and conservative society. In one room, an oil painting of a soiled white shirt captures the poignant details of what one experiences as a car bomb tore through an ordinary day.

When a Palestinian artist visited recently, he described the tone of the work as distinct from the rest of the area, Mewis recalls. “Here, he says that with every artist, you see that they are Iraqi. There are different styles but you don’t see Western influences,” she said. “This is the best compliment we’ve ever received.”

In April 2019, they spread their artwork throughout the public gardens of Abu Nawas Street, and the exhibits are like a call against corruption and suffocating ambition.

With hindsight, Mewis realized, it caught on to a society on the verge of revolt. Seven months later, small protests against state corruption have become a All-out uprising against the political systemand artists who joined the Iraqi people from all walks of life.

The revolutionaries in Baghdad built a beach

After more than 600 people died in a government repression, the protesters carved that history on the walls. Near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a gray stone tunnel turns into a riot of color. The murals show the names and faces of the dead, in golden calligraphy and black and white sketches.

Zaid Saad was one of the artists exhibiting at that festival in 2019, and the 31-year-old’s work – a suitcase cast from concrete – focuses on the rejection Iraqis face when trying to get to Europe or America.

One day he wants that work to be seen in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

When he was a student at the Institute of Fine Arts, he and his friends planned future projects. But amid an increasingly desperate economic situation, at least 10 of them board a migrant boat to Europe in 2015.

Some of the group died at sea. Others did, but were not contacted.

Millions of Iraqis have fled the country since 2003, escape violence and poverty.

In the entrance hall of Beit Tarkib is a piece Saad used to reflect that loss: a white door from near the Central Bank of Rasheed Street has been attached to the wall, and half a bicycle wheel protrudes. Viewer side from wood.

“This is about our plan, and how they stay with me,” he said, looking down at the spokes of the half-wheel. “The other half has passed to the other world, and I can’t see what’s there.”

Saad is currently working on his sculptures outside as the summer heat has subsided. Floodlights illuminate the courtyard like a stage. The process was quiet, sometimes meditative, as he mixed water with cement and the mixture covered his hands like a glove.

On a recent night, a driver was honking his car on the street, but Saad was still busy with his work. “I think about a lot of things while doing this,” he said.

His latest work for the exhibition, again, focuses on migration, and his friends are still on his mind. “Some of them trusted me so much that they told me they were leaving before telling their families,” he said.

His work was almost done, and he poured the last concrete blocks into its mold.

“I always feel sad when I read the news about refugees,” he said.

“Is it a big deal to let people in?”

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