Artists Express Iraqis' Anger
Baghdad Exhibit Reflects Belief That Iraqi Women Were Raped in Abu Ghraib
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 9, 2004; Page A14
BAGHDAD, June 8 -- The life-size human figure lay prone, its contours shaped to depict a woman under a head-to-toe shroud of virginal white. The only color was a ragged stain of bright red around the pelvis. That was the mark of rape, the artist said, the message of shame that he said he heard from U.S. soldiers.
The artist, Qasim Sabti, said he created the figure because that is what he wanted to say to fellow Iraqis and the world about the Americans' conduct at Abu Ghraib, the 280-acre prison complex 20 miles west of Baghdad where prisoners held by U.S. occupation troops were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
Sabti and other Baghdad artists for the first time have begun to speak out, through their art, about the scandal at Abu Ghraib and, more generally, about the 13-month U.S. occupation of their country. Judging by an exhibition by 25 Iraqi artists at Sabti's Dialogue Gallery in a middle-class neighborhood of northern Baghdad, they have formed a very unflattering idea of the American soldiers and civilian administrators sent here to get rid of Saddam Hussein and make a better Iraq.
The artists have not made careers of art with a political theme. Under Hussein, some painters and sculptors spent their time creating heroic depictions of the Iraqi leader, but most stuck to nonpolitical or abstract forms, Sabti said. Critical artistic comment could have landed them in jail or worse. Times have changed, however, and so has the willingness of Baghdad artists to vent strong feelings against the prevailing power -- the United States -- in their canvases and sculptures.
As artists, they have followed the postwar occupation with more emotion than precision; some of their certitudes, formed over the years, may not stand up to scrutiny. But as with art everywhere, their works are part of public discourse, shaping Iraqi opinion and relaying what their artists' antennae detect rising from the people. In that light, the frustration and anger they voiced in the exhibition organized this week by Sabti go a long way toward explaining how insurgents can move about Iraq for daily attacks against U.S. occupation forces and Iraqis who cooperate with them.
Two more car bombs went off Tuesday, one in the northern city of Mosul that killed nine Iraqi civilians and wounded 25, according to U.S. military authorities, and another at a U.S. base near Baqubah, 30 miles northeast of the capital, that killed at least two Iraqi civilians and a U.S. soldier. The blasts were part of an intensified campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes in recent weeks that have left many Iraqis frightened that their country has become a battleground rather than the prosperous democracy promised by the Bush administration.
Mohammed Maher Din depicted that fear for the exhibition in a nightmarish canvas of mayhem and violence, with curling lines slashing off at wild angles across a black background. Atop the turmoil were written three names: "Englend, Israel, U.S.A." Maher Din, a prominent and widely respected Iraqi artist, positioned a menorah, a symbol of Judaism, just under the three names, driving home his view that Israel is part of the ideological current that led the United States and England to invade Iraq and, in his view, take it over for their own interests. For an Iraqi imbued with Hussein's Arab nationalism -- and who remembers the Israeli attack that destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 -- the Jewish state's inclusion in his dark vision was not surprising.
"These countries are the ones most interested in destroying our country, every aspect of it," he said in explaining his art. "And they want to say that Iraq is too weak, that it cannot govern itself alone. This is not true. They just want to stay here. Even if the Iraqi government wants them to leave, they want to stay."
Maher Din said he has friends whose relatives were among the thousands of Iraqis who have spent time in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib. After being released, they recounted what they went through at the facility, he said, and their testimony formed the basis for the convictions that inform his art.
"This is very bad, what they have done," he said, referring to U.S. guards.
Maher Lateef, whose work in ceramics has been exhibited in Iraq, the broader Middle East and the United States, showed a live bird with its head covered in a hood and its wings tied behind its back, symbolizing what U.S. jailers did to Iraqi prisoners. The idea came to him, he said, when he saw some U.S. soldiers jump out of a Humvee and grab some squirming boys in a Baghdad street.
"The bird, when I caught it in my hand, was just like those kids," said Lateef, who studied at UCLA.
Hani Dala Ali, part of a younger generation of artists, was softer in his criticism of the occupation, but critical nonetheless. He showed an abstract painting in thick oils in which a wounded Iraqi meets a U.S. soldier whose hands stick up and out, with an exclamation point grafted onto the palms, in a gesture familiar to drivers being halted by a policeman.
Sabti said he was inspired to depict a rape victim from Abu Ghraib after receiving a copy of a letter that he said a prisoner who was raped and impregnated by a U.S. guard at Abu Ghraib sent to her family. In it, the woman begged her relatives to avenge her humiliation by killing U.S. soldiers, he said.
Hanan Ubeidi, one of the few women to exhibit, showed an abstract figure depicting a torso under a black-hooded head. At the bottom of a rounded belly, where a large opening was visible, a plaster embryo was fashioned, emerging from the opening. The piece alluded to the case cited by Sabti, and also recounted by Lateef, of an Iraqi woman becoming impregnated during her stay at Abu Ghraib.
As far as is publicly known, no U.S. soldiers have been charged with rape in the military's investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib. Some prisoners have alleged rape was committed at the prison, but Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who conducted an inquiry into abuses at the facility, said only that an instance of a guard having sexual relations with a female detainee -- which he did not qualify as rape -- was reported to him.
But to the artists exhibiting at Sabti's gallery, rape at Abu Ghraib has become a fact and, hence, a subject of their art. For one thing, they believe it happened widely. Lateef said he talked to a traumatized Iraqi woman who told him U.S. soldiers raped her 20 times over the course of her stay. For another, it symbolizes what they feel has happened to their country.
"I drew this in one night," Maher Din said, "to show through the magazines and the newspapers, to show what has happened in Iraq."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Mohammed Maher Din exhibited his chaotic view of the U.S. military occupation, above. Hanan Ubeidi's sculpture, at right, alluded to reports believed by many Baghdad artists that a female prisoner at Abu Ghraib was impregnated by a U.S. guard.
(Bassab Sebti For The Washington Post)