/ 14 March 2012

Iraq’s artists disappointed by declining cultural life

Yasir Abdul-Hakim, a sculpture student at Iraq’s Fine Arts Academy, wanted to learn his craft by making copies of a nude Greek statue. A professor told him to cover them with clothes.

He covered the first one, but the second one he copied naked, as it was.

“One of the professors told me: ‘What are you doing? You are exposing your life to danger’,” Abdul-Hakim said with a bitter smile.

“I would like to do nude models from Greek civilisation. But I cannot execute them due to the religious tide we are in, which no one can deny,” he said. “If my professor at college accepts it, society outside will not.”

Although Iraq is safer than in the darkest days of sectarian violence, many of its artists, filmmakers, musicians and performers say they are being stifled by religious conservatism and, with the government focused on reconstruction and security, missing the state support they once enjoyed.

Under Saddam Hussein, the government commissioned paintings and sculptures, and funded orchestras and theatres, to glorify the nation and its dictator.

But since Saddam was toppled in 2003, Iraq has been dominated by Islamist political parties from the previously suppressed Shi’ite majority. Many newly influential clerics deem enjoying painting, sculpture and music as a sin, and much of the official support has disappeared.

The Fine Arts Academy still exists and receives state funding, but students and teachers complain that it is no longer adequate for a proper education.

Carefully filing a statue of a headless torso of an ancient Assyrian hunter as part of a project for a class on the restoration of antiquities, Abdul-Hakim said he is hoping to acquire skills in Iraq that he can take abroad.

His dream is to go join a sculptor relative who emigrated decades ago to England. In Iraq, he said, “things will be worse, because the intellectual cannot stand against other tides.”

Decline of a tradition
Iraq has a long and proud tradition in the arts. The relics of ancient Mesopotamia show that sculpture flourished here for millennia, and in the Islamic period, Iraq’s cities were world-renowned centres of poetry and philosophy.

Iraqi art was also vibrant in the 20th century, although decades of war and economic sanctions under Saddam caused many artists to emigrate and the firm hand of dictatorship stifled free expression.

The situation for artists deteriorated even further after Saddam was deposed. Many of Baghdad’s intellectuals fled the widespread violence caused by fighting between Shi’ites and Sunnis in 2006/07.

Now, in a country where the capital still has electricity for only a few hours a day, funding for art is not a priority. Public gatherings are dangerous, there are few galleries, concert halls are empty, and cinemas and most theatres are shut.

Qasim al-Sabti, a prominent painter whose works have been shown in Tokyo and New York, has seen his own career track the fortunes of Iraqi art over the past 40 years.

Back in the 1960s, when he was poor and Baghdad was an emerging intellectual capital of the Arab world, students used to pay him a falafel sandwich for a drawing. In the 1970s, support for the arts became a sign of Iraq’s new oil wealth.

By the time Sabti graduated from the Fine Arts Academy in 1980, he could earn a good living making paintings on commission from Saddam’s government. That work began drying up in the 1990s when the international community imposed sanctions on Baghdad.

Since Saddam’s fall, he has sold 300 paintings in New York but only 20 in Iraq.

“Who appreciates art? The clergy who call for fighting art and culture? Or the politician who does not understand anything about culture or art?” said Sabti, his fingertips coloured with oil paint as he sat in his art gallery, Dialogue, near the Academy.

“If I changed the gallery into a mosque, I would get financial support. But as long as it is a gallery that displays art it will not get any support.”

Sing your Song
Inside the academy, sculptures depicting ancient Iraqis or abstract figures cast in plaster are scattered about. Some are broken from neglect or sabotage.

Several of the students said that their parents worked in the arts at a time when such work could provide a good living and social prestige. Abdul-Hakim said his father was a painter, and he inherited his love of art from him.

He showed the workshop where he was putting the final touches on a relief of Romeo and Juliet. It was made of clay, waiting for plaster, which the college is supposed to provide but has not made available.

Some other students said they shared Hakim’s ambition to leave Iraq. Others said they needed more training before they could consider leaving. Most said art and artists in Iraq were not treated with respect or given enough government support.

Ahmed Adnan, a sculpture student, said he wanted to continue his academic study to become a professor at college. He feels hurt by the current lack of respect toward art.

“If I went abroad and said ‘I am an artist’ I would get respect, but in Iraq the artist has no value,” Adnan said as he sat with colleagues in a café near the academy during the class break.

Omar Falah, a film director who graduated from the academy in 2005 and now lives in his home city of Nassiriya in southern Iraq, made his 2010 film Sing Your Song as an elegy for artistic life in southern Iraq.

The film, which has won awards at festivals abroad, tells the true story of a folk singer from Nassiriya named Majid who was forced to give up performing because of the threat of attack by militants. Instead, he has opened a shop selling musical instruments to keep the Iraqi folk music tradition alive.

The film was shown at a human rights film festival in Baghdad last month. Falah told Reuters he fears to show it in Nassiriya because “they will say ‘he works against political and religious parties'”.

“Abroad is better than here,” he said. In Iraq, “it is possible that any side could give an opinion, attack you and try you as it wishes — and we cannot do anything”. — Reuters