‘It is the memory of the people’: unpacking the artistic heritage of Iraq

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Upon entering the shabby building that houses the Iraqi ministry of culture, visitors unexpectedly stumble upon some of the country’s greatest treasures. In a recently refurbished room that used to be the cafeteria, 76 precious paintings and sculptures by major Iraqi artists are on display for the first time since the National Museum of Modern Art was looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“Art is people’s memory and conscience,” said Fakhir Mohammed, head of the ministry’s “Directorate of Plastic Arts” dealing with contemporary paintings and sculptures. During a tour of the recently opened but sparsely visited exhibition hall, Mohammed said that the return of the works of art “on these walls is only part of our ambition”. He added: “Now there is a real desire to bring Iraqi culture back to the previous level.”

About 11,000 works of art were in the museum when the United States invaded Iraq, a country that was once considered one of the largest cultural centers in the Arab world. In the ensuing chaos, looters ransacked museums and other institutions while American troops watched. “What happened in 2003 was a major blow to Iraq’s cultural heritage and the plastic arts movement,” said Mohammed. “We suffer from it until today”.

Some pieces have been hidden from the museum staff. Others were later found at local antiques markets, including a sculpture by the famous artist Jawad Salim. The wooden statue of a woman, titled Maternity, was worth $ 300,000 but was repurchased from an unsuspecting trader for $ 200. However, most of the pieces remain missing, and many were probably brought out of the country by international crime networks for disappear in private collections.

The museum’s inventory is now a quarter of its original size. Less than 600 works have been officially returned, mostly by well-meaning private collectors. But Iraq has few legal channels to enforce restitution. The historic Unesco Convention of the 1970s on the illicit trafficking of cultural goods is ineffective unless the destination countries agree to sign binding bilateral treaties committing them to return the cultural goods.

Paintings by Iraqi artists Suad al-Attar, left, and Rafa al-Nasri, right, on display at the Iraqi ministry of culture. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty Images

“If the two sides disagree, the convention remains valid, but cannot be applied,” said Junaid Sorosh-Wali, head of culture at UNESCO’s Iraq office. “Conventions provide a legal framework, but goodwill should come from the parties.”

The process is further hampered by the lack of a complete database of stolen works and funding for repurchase and maintenance. Across the hall from the exhibition hall, more than 2,300 other paintings are crammed into a warehouse. A third is in dire need of restoration due to improper storage, but the ministry’s workshop lacks the equipment to perform basic repairs.

However, the returned works are a source of national pride and an invaluable collective memory deposit for a nation that has suffered immeasurable losses. Over the span of more than a century, they tell stories of occupations, riots and wars, taking visitors on a historical journey from Ottoman and British rule, to the monarchy, to the Baath era, to the first Gulf War.

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Among the oldest paintings are the idyllic landscapes of Abdulqader al-Rassam, who traveled across the country in the service of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Iraq from the 16th century until it passed into the hands of the British after World War I. Rassam joined a group of artists who spearheaded the awakening of Iraqi national identity at a time when the country longed for self-determination.

Many of these “pioneering” artists were trained in Europe or the Ottoman Empire and returned to Iraq to launch a new art movement, using modern techniques to popularize the symbols of Iraqi folklore. An example of this style is a colorful mid-20th-century painting by Hafidh al-Droubi, a painter and art educator who studied in Rome and London and is most famous for using Cubism to depict life in Baghdad.

Alongside these peaceful scenes from Iraq’s heyday as an emerging Arab nation, there are more disturbing paintings that recount – and sometimes predict – its darkest days.

A 1958 painting by Tareq Madhloum commemorates the 1948 Wathba uprising, when crowds of students invaded the streets of Baghdad to reject British control and growing inequality. Entitled The Eternal Bridge Battle, the painting fluidly superimposes powerful scenes of the uprising, many of which evoke comparisons to the October Revolution of 2019. In the center of the painting, security forces open fire on the crowd attempting to cross the Ponte dei Martiri, named after the people killed in 1948. Both movements suffered brutal repression, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

Visitors look at the paintings of the famous artist Fariq Hassan.

Visitors look at the paintings of the famous artist Fariq Hassan. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty Images

Other works seem to portend violent events well ahead of their time. A 1976 painting by Faiq Hassan immediately awakens memories of the US bombing of a civilian air raid shelter during the first Gulf War. The large oil painting shows women and children, eyes and mouth wide open in terror, fleeing what appears to be an explosion. Surprisingly, it was painted 14 years before the 1991 Amiriyah Shelter bombing that killed more than 400 civilians.

To the right of the entrance hangs another haunting piece by Layla al-Attar, Iraq’s most famous female artist, who was once the museum’s director. Peering through the dark trunks of a palm grove, the observer’s attention is drawn to the center, where a fire rages on a distant residential area. Upon closer inspection, the outline of the fire resembles the map of Iraq, an allusion to the far-reaching impact of the war. From the safety of the palm grove, a woman – perhaps the artist – observes hell as if it were a premonition of her own death: al-Attar was killed by a US missile attack in 1993.

The subsequent conflicts that have plagued Iraq since the 1980s accelerated a decline in the cultural scene long before 2003. While the mid-century pioneers had thrived during a period of recovery, their successors fled from the 1990s. suffocating climate of wars, sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, leaving the rudderless art movement and the public deprived of its legacy.

Although the wars have subsided since then, the country’s recovery is hampered by internal conflicts, corruption and mismanagement, which have eroded public opinion on art. Veteran artists remember the days when the exhibition halls were packed with visitors and the government invested in the arts, often buying works of art to encourage budding painters.

“The government is removed by arts. We are frustrated with this. They only care about themselves, not the artists, “said Saad al-Tai, a 78-year-old artist whose painting is on display at the ministry. Dozens of Tai’s other works were lost in the 2003 looting. The artist feeds little hope that his paintings – or the golden age of the pioneers – will ever return.

“Iraqi society is still headed in an unstable direction,” Tai said. “Conditions have forced people to retreat inward. The artistic spirit has vanished ”.

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