Artists' block in Iraq

Special to The Times

On the road out of Kuwait, when he was retreating with his army unit from the carnage of what he calls the first American War, Nasir Kadham saw something he knew he had to paint.

It was a sight he thought told the story of the horrors he had just witnessed. Two soldiers lay by the side of the road; one shot to death, one still living, the living one eating from a crust of bread soaked in the dead one's blood.

But when Kadham returned to Iraq, a land under the ever-tightening fist of its dictator, he knew he would never be able to record this image. Instead, he painted a group of soldiers sharing bread, while one sat off to the side scribbling in a diary. "That memory, only I know, is the memory of that day," says Kadham, dragging on a cigarette in one nervous hand while patting a dirty gray handkerchief against his brow with the other. "A picture of the real image they would have thought was against the government. I could never make a painting like that, even though it was something real that I saw. They would find me."

Even Kadham's "more peaceful" paintings seemed impossible to create at times during Saddam Hussein's rule. He was making a living reproducing famous Orientalist works for sale to the rare foreign businessman who would step into his hot, airless gallery on a dusty street in a relatively upscale Baghdad neighborhood to sip Pepsi, talk about the embargo and occasionally pick up some of his work.

"But it was not really my work," Kadham says. "It was other people's work. My work was too hard, too expensive to do. It takes so long to make something that is your work. I could only afford the time to do this work," he says, gesturing sadly at a copy of a familiar-looking vermilion painting of an ancient robed figure holding an oil lamp. "Now it is worse every day. There is no money. I am too tired. Bad circumstances can be advantageous to an artist to make true art, but this is too much."

Kadham's words are echoed by artists throughout Baghdad, almost all of whom have found themselves incapable of making art since the war. Since the 1940s, this nation has had a strong history of modern art, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism, most notably the "pioneer movement" of the '50s that made Iraq the contemporary artistic center of the Arab world.

Here, security guards, taxi drivers and professors alike reverently intone the names of significant Iraqi artists -- people such as painter Jewad Selim and sculptor Mohammed Ghani, who never quite gained fame outside the Middle East.

These artists were known not just for their innovation but their prolific output. But those who carry on their legacy today have seen their paint pots dry up in the last months. They cite exhaustion, depression, the distraction brought by fears about their security from violent thieves, the difficulty of painting or sculpting without electricity to light their work, the lack of money for materials. They have greater freedom of speech, they say, but no ability to transform their long-quashed ideas into tangible art.

Across town at Gallery Hewar, a gallery and outdoor cafe that for 10 years has been a sanctuary for discussion among artists, these lamentations form the usual palm-shaded conversation over afternoon glasses of sugared tea.

"Do you know what 'hewar' means? It means dialogue. And this is the dialogue these days even in this dreamland gallery for artists," says gallery owner Qisam Sebti, a local painter who has long cut a dashing figure on the Iraqi cultural scene.

Sebti has not picked up a brush since the first days of the war. An exhibition hangs on the cool, white walls of his space, but none of the work is new. In the two months before the war, he frenetically churned out 130 paintings -- all abstract works incorporating discarded book covers -- because he feared he would die in the bombing and this was his last shot at immortality.

He now faces the continuing dire situation here, and like many artists refers to the past under Hussein as a better time for the arts in Iraq.

Many artists here will put politics aside and rattle off a series of figures about life for artists during Hussein's rule. They'll tell you that before the regime, there was one academy of art; during the regime there were four. Student enrollment in the academies leapt from 400 to 3,000. Paint and clay were paid for by the government. Saddam even paid high salaries to hundreds of artists for several years, from 50,000 to 150,000 dinars depending on how they ranked in the culture ministry's artistic firmament.

"Of course it was better then," says abstract artist Semira Abdul Wahab, who has not painted since the war. "Artists need calm, they need to be able to meditate. I have not had one minute of calm since the war began."

In the arcade of the Hotel Palestine, Wahab exhibits her abstractions alongside other people's paintings and sculptures in a black-and-white-themed gallery that looks transplanted from '80s New York. Business has slowed to a halt here, as it has in every gallery.

An annual gift to Hussein

WAHAB, arms encircled in silver and turquoise, with thick eye shadow to match, remembers the days just months ago when she was paid the top salary then given to artists, for which she was required to exhibit semi-regularly on themes related to the Baathist revolution, and to give Hussein a painting for his birthday every year.

"He didn't like my work because it was abstract. He likes realism," Wahab says. "But because my work is abstract, I could tell him it was an image of the revolution, or of his presidency, and he would never know that it represented something entirely different to me. I would just take it off the wall here and say I painted it special for his birthday. Such things never mattered to me."

It's surprising how many artists here speak of Hussein's rule in such blase terms. But, of course, there are exceptions. There are some who refused commissions and who expected the secret police to knock at their door any day because their work tended to jab at the power structure.

Motasim Kubaicy is one of them. His small bronzes conjure a dark, Kafkaesque world of whispering figures in heavy military coats and men covering their mouths with their arms. "I expected intelligence would take me in at any time for my exhibitions," says Kubaicy, who in his blue oxford shirt and rimmed glasses looks more like an accountant than a subversive artist.

He showed his work throughout the regime, with the exception of a couple of pieces, such as a sculpture of a withered body staring through empty eye sockets on a giant throne. "That one is like a medal on my chest. It's my real feeling. Not like the many artists in Iraq who made statues for Saddam because they wanted the money," he says.

Kubaicy was offered commissions from Hussein, but he refused them. He was desperate for the money, but instead of taking cash from the regime, he sold his car to pay for materials. His name was erased from the regime's list of notable artists, ending all hopes of recognition and funding and placing him at great risk. The only protection he had, he says, was that his work was untitled. As long as his sculptures could be left to the viewer's interpretation and not his own intent, he felt he had a chance of survival.

For the first time in 10 years, Kubaicy doesn't feel a jolt of fear every time he hears an unexpected knock at his home. But that doesn't mean he's rushed into a new period of creative fervor. Immediately after the war he did begin a series of work depicting life under American occupation, completing the first stage of sculpting in wax, but he hasn't been able to cast any of these pieces. Since the bombing began he has not been able to pay rent on his studio and can't work in bronze in his small home.

"I feel a greater freedom of expression, of course," he says, "but if I can't work, does it matter? I feel as though it is the same situation now, with different specifics under a different regime. I wish I could talk about it in words, but I can only express truly through my work. And because of the current situation, I don't know when I'll be able."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World