Art in exile

“Iraqi artists are just like other artists in the world, but Iraq’s history is a little different,” said Ali Jabbar. His works along with those of fellow Iraqi artists are on display at the Art in Iraq Today exhibition, which is currently taking place at the Beirut Exhibition Center.

A culmination of a series of exhibitions, Art in Iraq Today was first organized by the Meem Gallery in Abu Dhabi and ran there between October 2010 and May 2011. It featured the works of exiled Iraqi artists and attempted to highlight a corner of the art world that many know nothing about.

The exhibition, which was curated by Meen Gallery, Charles Pocock and Iraqi artist Dia al-Azzawi, is also a tribute to famous literary scholar Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. A Palestinian who settled in Iraq in the 1940s, Jabra wrote a seminal essay titled “Art in Iraq Today” in 1961. His work was re-visited in the 1970s and 1980s.

Azzawi explained that Jabra was incredibly important to the artists of his generation in that he opened a window for them, not only exposing their work to the West, but also in relaying the art history of Iraq. “This is a fantastic opportunity to pay tribute to the guy,” he told NOW Extra.

But the exhibit also presents a chance to remind people in the region of Iraq’s great contribution to the arts. “It is a well-known fact that in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the Iraqi [art] movement was one of the most creative movements in the Arab world,”Azzawi said. “But after that, during the 1980s and 1990s, because of the one-party system, like Russia, [the government] tried to use art for their benefit.”

All 14 artists whose work is on display have spent their formative years in Iraq, most of them training at either Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts or the Academy of Fine Arts. It almost seems like a school reunion, but they are also united in their experience of exile. Due to the political situation and sanctions during Saddam Hussein’s era, many artists chose to leave Iraq after the regime made life very difficult.

One such artist is Halim al-Karim. He may have fled Iraq in 1991, but he never truly left. Speaking of the effect Iraq and its recent history has had on his work, he said that “there is zero effect. Iraq always lives inside our souls. Even the technique I’m using here, photography, I got from my father.” His eerie piece titled Witness from Baghdad 1 shows blurred faces and bright, life-like eyes. They are an indication of his distaste at what has been going on in Iraq. “I want people to keep resisting deceptive policies.”

Indeed, there is a sense of pain conveyed in some of the works. Exhibition attendee Nazira el-Atrache felt it. “I love it; the sufferance they are going through is very obvious, I can feel it. [It is] captivating in terms of hurt and pain.” It is obvious that country’s suffering and desolation fueled the ideas and works of these exiles.

Delair Shaker left Iraq in 1994. Using mixed media, his Shattered Memories not only encapsulates the feelings of pain, but also anticipation.  “I want people to see what is happening in Iraq. This is a representation of suffering, but I also use a lot of colors for hope, new life and a new country,” he told NOW Extra.

Totaling 80 pieces, the exhibit holds a mixture of paintings, mixed media, sculpture and installation. For Mahmoud Obaidi, paint is not the only tool. “I use many other visual references, such as video and installation art.” Pieces such as 2 Gigabytes of My Memory 5 use a mixture of old images and fabrics, symbolizing a time gone by. “It is a story or a documentary of all current events in Iraq.”

“For us, this was not a commercial project,” said co-curator Pocock, “but rather a historical documentation of a period of time past and the foundations for something to grow, to give the artists a basis and an understanding […] We were able to actually create a dialogue between the artists, get together as a collective.”

For many in Lebanon, this will be the first time that they will have seen any kind of Iraqi art. “It’s a very important event, for the artists and for the people in Lebanon to be exposed to it. There are different generations of artists here,” said Lebanese artist Souad Amin.

But what about the new generation of Iraqi artists in Iraq? For the artists exhibiting here, there are mixed feelings: The current situation in their homeland does not lend itself to creativity, and there have been missed opportunities. But there is optimism.

“I have contact with a few students in Iraq who are determined,” said artist Modhir Ahmed, who left the country in 1980. “They are working hard to be good artists. […] No matter how difficult the situation is in the country, there is always somebody who is resilient and, with whatever limited means, is producing very good art.”

The exhibition runs until December 18 at the Beirut Exhibition Center. It is open to the public daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information on the exhibition and the artists, please click here.