Thick with cigarette smoke, the scene at the Hewar Art Gallery has a
Long-haired artists with goatees and three-day stubble. Elegant women with
distracted eyes and languid hauteur. Highbrow bohemians gossiping and glancing
at the latest paintings and sculptures. The discreet clinking of coffee cups.
For a while, at least, in this nondescript middle-class neighborhood of
eastern Baghdad, you can imagine being closer to Berlin, Paris or New York,
unencumbered temporarily by the deprivation, oppression and fear that haunt
You also are in the presence of some of the Mideast's most prized artworks -
- from abstract oil painting to powerfully gaunt bronze sculpture to quasi-
The Hewar probably has Iraq's hippest arts scene, but the gallery is not as
unusual as it appears. While the country is increasingly coming under siege,
dozens of galleries have sprouted up in Baghdad. Iraqi painting and sculpture
have become a thriving, if clandestine, export industry, filling museums and
private collections throughout the Mideast and even Europe.
The theater also is booming, and even the nation's beleaguered symphony
orchestra is drawing packed crowds.
All of this despite -- or in deliberate obliviousness to -- the country's
harsh dictatorship and the prospect of another potentially devastating war.
Notable in its almost complete absence from the galleries and museums is
any representation of this nation's recent history: the deaths of millions in
the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 and the 1991 Gulf War, the international
sanctions and the privations of dictatorship.
While Iraq has had more than its fill of pain, violence, loss and sorrow,
little of it registers in the country's artwork.
For Baghdad's cultural elite, however, this is not simple escapism. It is a
deliberate rejection of the mundane, they insist.
NOT JUST 'WAR OR OIL'
"We are not just a country of war or oil," said Qasim Alsabti, a painter
who runs Hewar with his wife, Iman Al-Showg, a prominent sculptor.
"We are a proud culture that goes back 6,000 years to the Sumerians. We
have been making art for longer than anyone. This is what gives us identity.
This is what will make our art last another 1,000 years, when all this war is
Some visitors also might expect Iraqi art to be imbued with a Stalinist
socialist realism typical of a totalitarian dictatorship. But apart from the
omnipresent government-sponsored paintings and statues of President Saddam
Hussein, Iraqi art displays a sometimes refreshing, if eerie, independence.
HUSSEIN A NOVELIST
Hussein himself is believed to have written three novels in recent years
under pen names -- works viewed by most non-Iraqi critics as amateurish and
forgettable. He apparently sees himself as a patron of the arts and has given
strict instructions to the nation's cultural authorities to avoid dogmatism.
"The last time anything deliberately political happened was in the 1980s,
when an artist made paintings with the blood of soldiers who were fighting in
the war against Iran," said an official in the Ministry of Culture, who asked
to remain anonymous.
"It was horrible, just the thought of it, and that sort of thing was not
Of course, painting with blood might seem like a natural for some Western
artists, for the shock value alone. For the Iraqi literati, however, it is
"We have to forget the black side of life," said Reem Kubaa, a poet, as she
sat with the Alsabtis and a group of friends one recent afternoon, sharing a
masgouf, or traditional Iraqi fish fry, in Hewar's leafy courtyard. "If our
art is black, that means we are stopped. We are not doing our job as artists."
When a visitor remarks that Iraqi artists might have ample inspiration to
produce a latter-day "Guernica," -- Picasso's anguished masterpiece on the
Spanish Civil War -- Kubaa snapped back: "Times have changed. It's very
important for us to not cry over spilt milk. We have to prove to the world
that we are a culture. We are greater than our suffering."
PAINTING, SCULPTURE, POETRY
Although Iraq has never been known in the Mideast for producing high-
quality fiction or film -- fields that are dominated by Egypt and Iran -- it
is viewed as the region's leader in painting, sculpture and poetry. In these
fields, Iraqi artists reached their modern-day zenith in the 1950s and 1960s,
then declined in the 1980s and finally revived in the 1990s.
Although the international economic sanctions on Iraq have reduced artists'
contacts with the outside world, many say their influences are eclectic. When
asked which foreign artworks have influenced his work, sculptor Ahmed Al-Safi
mentioned the Popol Vuh, the epic poem of Central America's Mayan Indians, as
well as Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the ancient Sumerians and Irish
Al-Safi's bronze sculptures are among the most socially conscious -- thin
figures walking in hoops, never going anywhere, always solitary, imbued with
what Al-Safi calls "a lack of hope."
However, some of the artistic choices stem from simple market economics.
With the Iraqi economy in shambles, many artists depend on the tastes of
Haider Wady, a sculptor who, along with Al-Safi, is a leader in Iraq's new
generation of artists in their 20s and 30s, admits that "nearly all" of his
clients are foreigners -- either diplomats and aid workers living in Baghdad
or people who buy his works when he shows them at exhibitions in Amman,
Damascus and Cairo.
"We are selling for an international audience. We have to go farther than
Iraq, farther than our small problems," he said.
BOOM TIMES FOR ACTORS
There also has been a boom in domestic art appreciation, in part because
imported entertainment has become harder to get. Since 1990, when U.N.
sanctions were imposed, nearly all foreign movies have been unavailable. As a
result, most of Baghdad's cinemas have been converted to stage theater. Now,
with about 30 theaters producing everything from slapstick burlesque to
serious drama, times have never been better for Iraqi actors.
Government largesse also has helped. The Ministry of Culture gives handsome
salaries to many artists and actors -- even those who have yet to achieve
prominence, said Mais Kumer, lead actress in a long-running Baghdad stage
comedy, "I Saw It With My Own Eyes," and a prominent figure on state-run
Kumer's play, which mixes slapstick with high melodrama, is an example of
how political content increases as one descends the artistic ladder toward
mass taste. "I Saw It With My Own Eyes" tells of Martians who arrive on Earth
to warn the oblivious, happy-go-lucky Earthlings that an evil empire named
America is plotting to wage nuclear war and enslave the world.
And when asked about political boundaries -- for example, whether Hussein
is off-limits as a target for jokes -- Kumer answered in a way that suggested
how deep the roots of authority penetrate, even among artists.
"There's no reason to ever criticize the president, of course," she said.
"But he met with us several weeks ago, and he told us that nothing is off-
limits, not even government ministers. He told us to be artists, to be
comedians, to say what we want to say and not worry about the consequences.
But yes, there are two things we never criticize -- teachers and parents."
Asked why those are sacred cows, Kumer answered: "Because the president
gave us strict instructions that they cannot be criticized. The children might
be watching, and they might be influenced. We are a high culture, with high
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle