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CONTEMPORARY IRAQI ART: TESTIMONY TO WAR MOHAMMED AL-SADOUN Introduction Unfortunately, during the past three decades, Iraq has been involved in a number of successive wars that killed thousands of its citizens and caused severe damage to its economy and cultural properties. The Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980 - 1988 and claimed the lives of half million citizens from both countries. Unfortunately, the war and violence in Iraq did not end at the cessation of this long and bloody conflict, but continued when Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. In response to this invasion the United States and other countries formed a collation to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The collation started massive aerial bombardments against Iraq forces in January 1991, followed by ground offensive inside Iraqi territory. Finally, the offensive ended on February 27th, 1991 and Kuwait was liberated. After the attacks of 9/11 the United States, United Kingdom and other countries formed another collation to invade Iraq. The main objective of this invasion has been labeled in many circles as a fabrication and has remained controversial to this day. According to U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the reason for such invasion was: “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people”.1

Unkown-Soldier The invasion, which was known as Operation of Iraqi Freedom, was very 1  See Wikipedia :



devastating to Iraqi culture and art. It was described by McGuire Gibson as a cultural tragedy.2 Since the early hours of this invasion the Iraq National Museum, the Pioneers’ Museum and the Saddam Arts Center, the National Library and Iraqi archive center were looted and damaged. Thousands of precious archaeological pieces of Mesopotamian and Islamic civilizations were also pillaged. Gibson states that, “A number of scholars and organizations were warning of the potential damage to Iraq’s and the world’s cultural heritage if war swept over Iraq”. The Bush administration ignored all warnings and went ahead with its plan to invade Iraq. Furthermore, The United Sates, as an on occupying country, did not provide any protection to those aforementioned Iraqi cultural proprieties such archeological sites, museums and archive center and left them vulnerable to looters and vandalism. In their book, “Cultural Cleansing in Iraq “editors Baker and Shereen T. Ismail and Tareq Y. Ismail (2010) raise the following question,” Why museums were looted, libraries burned and academics murdered “.3 Most Iraqi artists including myself whose their art work s were looted still do not know about the fate of their own artworks stolen from the Saddam Center for the Arts and other art museums during U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The collections of the Saddam Center for the Arts included some of my own art works, among them three pieces which had won international awards from the Baghdad International Festival of Arts in 1988, along with the works of other two prominent Iraqi artists: Mohamed Muher Al -Din and Ala Hussain Bashir who were distinguished by their outstanding artworks that represented the maturity that Iraqi art reached during 1980s. During that period I started to use collage such as military uniforms, sand and other materials as well. The themes of these works expressed my experience and response to the bloody war between Iraq and Iran. The war left a significant impact on the works of many Iraqi artists in particular those who participated in the Baghdad International Festival of Arts in 1988. Unfortunately, most of Iraqi arts works that were produced during 1950s- 1980s were looted during American invasion of Iraq during 2003. Since 2003 there has been no clear or accurate information about Iraqi artworks and artifacts damaged or looted from Iraqi art museums or any information that can lead to their whereabouts. Unlike the looting of Iraqi National Museum, that received some international attention from local and international organizations like UNESCO, the Iraqi art museums have not received similar scrutiny due to the rise of many religious groups during and after the occupation of Iraq, according to Abdelaziz Abid, who is a Senior Program Specialist at UNESCO. The 20th Century Paintings, located at the Pioneers’ Museum and the Saddam Center for Modern Art were also plundered and most of the works stolen. According to the declaration of the museum staff only 400 paintings of the Saddam Art Center, out of more than 2000 pieces of the Iraq painters’ collection dating from the beginning of the last century to present, have been recovered. Almost all are paintings or large canvases, and most were stacked haphazardly. The most common 2  McGuire Gibson, “Art Loss in Iraq/Cultural Tragedy In Iraq: A Report On The Looting of Museums, Archives And Sites.” 3  See Roger Van Zwanenberg : Cultural Cleansing in Iraq. htm



visible damage was tearing and all still need assessment.4 The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 not only caused the destruction of Iraqi art museums and the devastation of many arts works including public monuments, but also stopped the promising artistic process and development of modern and contemporary Iraqi art that began with the establishment of Iraq as a modern state in 1932. Before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi art continued to grow and became an important part of the Iraqi culture. Iraqi governments since 1932 supported art and artists. Generally speaking, Iraqi artists before 2003 were supported by the government and many of them received state support and scholarships to study art abroad. As a result, a large number of them were commissioned by previous Iraqi governments in to create large art projects such as murals and monuments. This state-supported art movement declined and finally came to an end after 2003. Thus, there have been no major art festivals, art exhibitions or other art events since then and up to the present. In addition to the cessation of fine arts, music, theater and literature have also declined with the rise of sectarian prejudice and violence. However, while lamenting this downward trajectory of previous artistic output before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, should not obscure the fact that the previous Iraqi regime did violate artists’ rights to express his or her own views on wide range of issues. Censorship has been and still is a major problem in Iraq; and, artists, writers, journalists and intellectuals in general have suffered from it. It is obvious that censorship through intimidation and threat continues in Iraq as Rana F. Sweis (2011) writes: “Lutfiya al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi novelist, arrived in Jordan in 2006 after receiving death threats from extremists in Iraq. She considers Amman her home for now. Her recently published book “Women Removed,” translated into English by John Peate, is a novel in which the central character suffers from a brutal attack and home invasion in Baghdad”.5 The American led foreign occupation of Iraq in 2003 led to sectarianism, which has dominated every aspect of Iraqi society and culture and has created the marginalization of minorities. The new political system has also failed to recognize cultural pluralism in Iraq. In his article “Sectarianism in Iraq: a Review “, Eric Davis (2011) states that: Sectarianism in Iraq is particularly insightful when examining the changing nature of social and political identities. The negative legacy of Saddam Husain’s political manipulation of ethno confessional identities, especially during the 1990s UN sanctions regime, was compounded after 2003 by a weak state that has consistently failed to exercise the leadership needed to promote social trust and national reconciliation.”6 As soon as the Iraqi regime collapsed in 2003, Iraqi artists and intellectuals, regardless their religious and ethnic affiliation, are now faced with a new reality 4  Abdelaziz Abid, “ UNESCO Activities Including the Restoration of the Iraqi Cultural Heritage. 5  Rana F. Sweis 2011), MIDDLE EAST; Iraqi Artists, Actors and Designers Try to Build New Lives in Jordan, 6  Eric Davis, “Sectarianism in Iraq: a Review “ , sectarianism-in-iraq-review.html



characterized by violence, sectarian prejudice, threats and unemployment; all of which has forced most of them to flee from Iraq and to seek refuge in neighboring countries like Syria, Jordan and others. With regard to visual art, the American occupation also led to the destruction of the art market. As a result, after the looting of the art museums, Iraqi artists have not been able to sell their artworks. As Iraqi artist Dia Al-Aazzawi explains: The museum is not functioning that well. Galleries are also very limited in their ability to show work. This has been the case for a long time, possibly even since the 90s and the harsh sanctions they brought with them. The situation is compounded by the fact that it is just too difficult for people to buy and collect, which puts pressure on artists to leave and exhibit abroad. The invasion forced the closure of galleries and the departure of many international institutions, which also makes it very difficult to sell work in the country.” 7 Hashim Al Tawil (2011) is an Iraqi artist who argues that the main objective of what happened to Iraqi cultural heritage in 2003 was to erase, what he calls, “Iraq’s cultural memory”. Contrasting between the status of Iraqi art before and after 2003, Al Tawil points out that: “Baghdad used to be the center of modern Arab art with flourishing galleries, conferences, events, and cultural activities attended by artists and intellectuals from the Arab countries and the rest of the world. Eight years after the occupation there are no serious art exhibits, or galleries in Baghdad, and most artists deserted Iraq to end up struggling for their and their families’ well being on the doors of galleries and UN refugee offices in the neighboring countries”.8 War Monuments Unlike what happened to Iraqi art and culture in 2003, the Iran-Iraq war 19801988 had no devastating effect on Iraqi art and culture. No archeological sites, art museums and other cultural centers were attacked or damaged. The regime continued to support art because it used it as an effective medium to raise morale and to foster the spirit of victory. This would explain why the government spent vast sums of money on war monuments during that period. In addition, the portraits of Saddam began to appear in large sizes in order to be seen everywhere in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Artists were commissioned to make portraits and paintings featuring Saddam as an absolute leader. The ministry of culture and Victory Arch (Qaws al-Nasr) information and organizations 7  Written by staff; all images courtesy of Meem Gallery 8  Hashim Al- Tawil , “The Invasion of Iraq and the Destruction of Culture”, http://www.



such as labor unions and other societal groups organized many exhibitions of political posters, as a form of communication and propaganda during the Iran-Iraq war. In addition, art exhibitions, art festivals and other artistic events continued and Iraqi artists where still able to participate in major international art exhibitions and biennials during the eight-year conflict. During the Iran-Iraq war, many memorial monuments were built in Baghdad and in other provinces such as the Martyr’s Monument (Nusb al-Shahid), The Unknown Soldier complex, The Victory Arch (Qaws al-Nasr) as well as many other monuments. These shrines were built to instill the “spirit of victory”; but during and after U.S. invasion in 2003, many of these public memorials in Baghdad and other provinces were removed or destroyed. Ironically, Nusb al-Shahid and Qaws al-Nasr, which were located in the Green Zone, escaped destruction but their connection to the war with Iran makes their fate and future unknown. In his book ,“The Monument Vulgarity, and Responsibility in Iraq”, Ismail al Khali (1991 ) states that ,” The Victory Arch, as it is called was conceived by the President of Iraq, Saddam Husain, who first announced the plan in a speech on April 1988”.9 Al Khali published in his book the initial Sketch of the Monument which was made by the Saddam Huesian himself. He adds that ,” the maquete worked from plaster casts of the Present’s arms, taken from just above elbow, with a sword inserted into each fist”10. Qaws al-Nasr features two strong arms holding two curved swords said to be the modeled after the actual arms of Saddam; a symbolic representation of the victory over Iran which was an objective that Saddam wanted to achieve at any cost and regardless of the magnitude with regard to the loss in lives. Thus, the destruction and removal of public monuments in Iraq, during and after 2003, was also an attempt to alter the visual landscape in Baghdad. As Sinan Antoon explains: If Saddam was obsessed with inscribing his name and deeds, real or imagined, onto Iraq’s history and intent on eclipsing, if not erasing, the legacy of his immediate predecessors, those who replaced him share at least some of his obsessions. The discourse and practice of debaathification in post-invasion Iraq extends beyond the purging of officials and barring of candidates from the political arena. The visual landscape, too, has to be debaathified. Thus, in 2005, a Committee to Remove the Remains of the Baath Party and Consider Building New Monuments and Murals was appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.”11 Martyr’s Monument (Nusb al-Shahid) Nusb al-Shahid was designed by Ismail Fattah (1934-2004).The construction of the monument started in 1981 and was completed in 1983. It was designed to honor Iraqi soldiers who died in Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988. Fatah was born in Basra, Iraq and he graduated from the Institute of Arts in Baghdad with a Diploma of Painting in 1956 and a Diploma of Sculpture in 1958. In addition, he studied art in Italy and was awarded a Diploma of Ceramics from San Jacomo Academy in Rome in 1963; he also received a Diploma in Sculpture from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 1964. 9  Al Khalil ,S. (1991)The Monument vulgarity, and responsibility in Iraq. London : Andre Deutsch. 10  The same above reference 11  Sinan Antoon, “Bending History”,



Martyr’s Monument (Nusb al-Shahid), Ismail Fattah, 1983 Nusb al-Shahid is considered the largest contemporary public monument in Iraq. This structure is a remarkable artistic achievement, honoring not only Iraqi soldiers killed during the war between Iraq and Iran but also other national wars as well. The Martyr Monument stands in its own right as a masterpiece. Recent public monuments in Iraq have served as propaganda, which is why they have failed to communicate with the people. Some of these monuments tried to forge links with Iraq’s artistic heritage, but in a way that was superficial and lacked creativity and imagination. In short, most artists have not been successful in creating truly public art; which is one reason why one should credit Fattah for being able to escape such restrictions in his work.12 The structure consists of a 40-meter high dome split into two halves; comprising 190 meters in total diameter covering a circular space of 562,500 square meters (see Figures 35, 36). The Monument consists of two parts. The upper level includes a dome, a fountain, and the Iraqi national flag. The ground level includes the museum and the relief. The dome is covered with blue glazed ceramic tiles, although the original plan indicated the dome should be gilded with gold. Ismail Fattah, in his own words, said: “This is the chief symbol of the spirit of the martyr. Its forms and proportions are adopted from the Iraqi domes, and the partition and the aperture reflect the open and spiritual link with the Divine”.13 Artist as a Witness During and after 2003, a large number of Iraqi artists have engaged in anti-war art and acts that condemned violence and called for peace. The war made artists more proud of their own cultural heritage, more nostalgic of Mesopotamia and of Islamic heritage that was under serious threat. Many Iraqi artists, in particular those from the 1980’s turned to the past in search of historical and cultural symbolisms. In their response to the horror of war, these artists returned to their past looking for an inspiration, clues, ideas or solutions. They also tried to explore the aesthetic and artistic qualities of Arabic letters and Mesopotamian signs, symbols, techniques, 12  Al-Sadoun, M ( 1999). A Contextual Analysis of Contemporary Iraqi Art Using Six Case Studies. The Ohio State University 13  See (Ur) 1981, p. 34)



etc. Their anti-war artworks reveal the diversity of pluralistic, political and cultural ideas, and themes that are presented in both in 2D and 3D art work, as well as video instillations and live performances. Their works prove that Iraqi art, even in this difficult time, has been able to communicate to diverse international audiences. The strong relation between Iraqi anti-war art and cultural context provides an excellent example that art is reflection or representation of its own culture. As Arthur Efland, Kerry Freedman and Patricia Stuhr (1996) emphasize, the importance of art is as: “a form of cultural production as something opposed to formalism. By emphasizing the significance of the relation between art and culture, these art scholars state that art is a form of cultural, production and reproduction that can only be understood within the context and interests of its culture of origin and appreciation”.14 The Wounded Soul

To examine how the war have shaped the experiences of Iraqi people including artists, one should how did Iraqi artists did Iraqi artists respond to the war? Dia Al-Azawi was one of many Iraqi artists who produced anti-war artworks such as the “Wounded Soul”. This sculpture was dedicated to Iraqi professors who were killed or assassinated during American occupation of Iraq in 2003. Most of these Wounded Soul detail: The Trojan Horse, Iraqi professors who were killed Dia Al Azzawi’s were against the war. This work represents a wounded horse as a symbolic representation of the destruction and fall down of Baghdad. Al-Azzawi expressed the tragic reality of Iraqi academics assassinated. Art Historian Platt states that: The destruction of the heart of Iraqi cultural and intellectual life is destroying the future not only for that country, but for the whole world. Any academic killed represents research destroyed, students not taught, the heritage of knowledge no longer possible.15 In addition, Al -Azzawi made a large size anti-war painting (240 x 800 cm) entitled “Elegy to My Trapped City”. I had a chance to see this painting and talk to the artist during my visit to Abu Dhabi Art Fair held at Manrat Sadddiyat from 15 to 19, November 2011. In this large size painting, in black and white only, Al -Azzawi reveals strong influence of famous Picasso’s Guernica in terms of theme and composition. Both paintings, of course, express virtually the tragedy of two cites during war, one is Spanish and called Guernica and the other one is Iraqi called 14  Efland, Freedman, Stuhr, ( 1996 ), “ Postmodern art education: An approach to curriculum. The National Art Education Association. 15  See Art and Politics Now.



Baghdad. In this painting we see a horse terrified by the horror of the tragedy, configured within a geometric- calligraphic composition. Baghdad: A recycled dream of a city. The Art of Mohammad Al-Sadoun In recent years my works has been characterized by using recycling objects such as doors, chairs, books and conceptual live performances. The idea of burning is directly related to the tragic situation that Iraq and experienced. The war killed thousands of innocent people and destroyed their properties and torn their country. It is true that the war was devastating, especially to culture and art in Iraq, but the war did not stop Iraqi artists, and I am one of them from continuing, their creative activities and responsibilities in the most critical era of Iraqi modern history. During the war with Iran, when shells and missiles were falling on villages and cities in both Iran and Iraq killing many of their citizens, Faraha wrote: Mohammed Al-Sadoun, Burnt “In his series of conceptual art-works” Door, 2003 burning doors of Baghdad”, Sadoun saw the Iraqi Iranian war as a” destruction of life”. He also saw the burning doors of Baghdad as art with a very sad perception. He saw the doors before his eyes were burning when the Iranian bombed to his city. Again, a few years later, history repeated itself with George Bush’s belief that it was in the best interest of America and the world to remove Saddam Hussein. In the process Iraq was ‘being destroyed’ and still it is until now. In an Arabic Culture doors are the only way to enter some ones sanctuary. They are the only Passages to the individual’s world. It is everyone’s holy place. Therefore, to have the doors burned down, it means that the whole existence Mohammed Al-Sadoun Burnt Door, of ones being is vanished.16 2003 Since then I have tried to express the 16  See Naim Frahat (2011) , “Mohammed Al-Sadoun :Iraqi Artist”. http://mohammedalsadoun.



brutality of the war, destruction, devastation and the suffering of people and their confusion. This might help in explaining why I used non-traditional objects and materials such as 3D objects like books, chairs and wooden doors which very are often burned in front of a live audience. I strongly believe that that art should have strong cultural and social role during war and peace. Faraha, in 2005, wrote of my Mohammed Al-Sadoun, Untitled , 2003 work: The concept for Burnt Door #1 evolved in the summer of 1986 during the Iraqi war with Iran. While working in his Baghdad studio one day, Al Sadoun heard a strong explosion that shook his downtown neighborhood. Upon investigation, he came across burning houses that had been hit by an Iranian missile. The impact of the missile left beautiful Baghdadi windows and doors burning, leaving Al Sadoun with anger that haunted him, and forcing him to return to the site later that evening. When he returned he found a burnt door. When asked about the impact of the burnt door, Al Sadoun recounts, “I was very interested in the color, texture and accidental fragmentations of the burning of that door, so I took the door to my studio and started working on it”.17 Before and After the American invasion I made many sculptures in which combined used books and chairs that were tied together to express censorship that Iraqi artists and Intellectuals have faced in their conformation with the Iraqi repressive and dictator regimes before and after 2003. Sausser (2001) states that: Mohammed Al-Sadoun’s untitled sculpture, make from a stack of books tied with twine, painted and perched on a tripped pedestal, has an enigmatic presence that calls for repeat examination. Like a piece of personal history revered in spite of its mundane simplicity, the sculpture is a compelling Mohammed Al-Sadoun, Untitled icon to the ordinary.18 , 2004 In her thesis entitled “Contemporary 17  See Maymanh Frahat ( 2005),” The Middle East Through the Eyes of Mohammed Al-Sadoun”, 18  See Nancy Sausser (2001), ” A Variety of Muses, Media at Faculty Exhibit”. Prince George’s Weekend



Art of Iraqis and Categorical Assumptions of Nationality: an Analysis of the Art and Narratives of Hana Mal Allah, Adel Abidin and Wafaa Bilal, Amanda Duhon examines how these three Iraqi artists responded to war through their paintings, video installation and live performances. The influence of Iraqi civilizations and culture is visible in particular on the works of Hana Mal Allah as Duhon points out that, “This reflects the artist’s continued reference to the Mesopotamian cultural heritage”19 . In her works Hana Mal Allah also uses variety of media and objects such Hana Mal Allah, Baghdad’s City as books. Sometimes, the artist burns Map her canvas to express her feeling and frustration about the continuation of war and violence in her homeland. The following statement expresses my own painful experience and memories of the about the war: I didn’t want to leave my country. I wanted to do a project about the burning city so the world would know what I have seen. When I was in Iraq, every time I was in the street I had to know that I might die at any moment. I passed many dead people every day; I took a minibus to work that had to follow long detours because the streets were blocked. Troops were everywhere. When I went shopping there were soldiers with guns pointed. I lived without electricity, water, little food, one hour of electricity if you Love, War and Dream, Ahmed Al were lucky. Hell is more comfortable Bahraini than Iraq.20 The sculpture entitled “Love, War and Dream” by Ahmed Al Bahraini is a symbolic representation of the war-torn Iraq showing a metal map of Iraq that 19  Amanda Duhon (2004), “ Contemporary Art of Iraqis And Categorical assumptions of Nationality: an Analysis of the Art And Narratives of Hana Mal Allah, Adel Abidin and Wafaa Bilal . 20  See Art and Politics Now Amanda Duhon (2004), “ Contemporary Art of Iraqis And categorical assumptions of Nationality: an Analysis of the Art And Narratives of Hana Mal Allah, Adel Abidin And Wafaa Bilal



contains a heart symbol represents love as well peace that should prevail in Iraq after the destruction. This timely work sneers at the pathetic message the terrorist sends and transforms it with his ‘LOVE ,WAR & DREAM’, into a message of childlike lightness, of hope. Ahmed Al Bahrani adds his voice to the winds of change sweeping the region, winds of revolution that reject repression, condemn injustice, and makes us all aspire to a better and more dignified life.21 Conclusion The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been vey devastative of contemporary art. It was resulted in the looting and destruction of significant modern and contemporary Iraqi artworks and forced most Iraqi artists to leave their country. Regales to the violence, threats and other difficulties that Iraqi artists have faced at home an in exile, as well, they have been able to produce very powerful anti-war artworks to condemn the war and destruction.

21  See “Love, War and Dream: Ahmed Al Bahrani”. ct=110&z_cid=121&z_lb=0&cct=101&ccid=1975#mp_vp_nex=25.2187164729713&mp_ vp_ney=55.28797528311452&mp_vp_swx=25.209009837454942&mp_vp_ swy=55.27552983328542&mp_zoom=15


Contemporary IraqI Art: TestImony to War  

The invasion, which was known as Operation of Iraqi Freedom, was very devastating to Iraqi culture and art. It was described by McGuire Gib...