Artists Feel Painted Into a Corner in Baghdad

Muayad Muhsin's "Picnic," depicting Donald H. Rumsfeld. Though many artists have fled Iraq, Muhsin says he sees no choice but to stay. (Megan Greenwell - Twp)

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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Ultimately, it won't be the constant threat of violence that drives celebrated ceramics artist Mahir Samarrai out of the place of his birth. When he finally, reluctantly moves out of Baghdad later this year, the cause will be much more mundane.

"To do ceramics, you need to fire the pieces in the kiln for eight hours. Since 2004, we've had one or two hours of electricity here each day," said Samarrai, 57, who said he cannot afford a generator. "So what is the choice?"

Baghdad's once-flourishing community of artists has all but evaporated. Streets formerly lined with galleries are now deserted, and the artists who remain say they have not sold a piece since the U.S.-led invasion. Samarrai and several others estimated that 90 percent of artists who were working in the capital in early 2003 have been killed or have fled the country.

This flight could have grave implications for efforts to rebuild, scholars say. As Iraq continues to hemorrhage economic and cultural elites -- painters and poets as well as doctors and engineers -- many worry about the ramifications of leaving behind a population without a sizable upper class. The fear is especially acute among artists and art historians, who lament the city's loss of its status as the cultural capital of the Arab world.

"The threat to the culture is at least as devastating for Iraq's future as the political problems," said Shayma Ahmed, a professor at Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts. "If the artists and the writers leave, who will be here to show what is happening and change the situation?"

At the Hewar Gallery, the most prominent of the few remaining art galleries in Baghdad, about two dozen artists and friends gather each day to discuss their work and the deteriorating security situation in their home country. The question of whether to leave Baghdad is a constant topic of discussion at Hewar, which means "dialogue" in Arabic.

"There's no Jaish al-Mahdi in Jordan," a middle-aged man said on a recent weekday at the gallery, using the Arabic name for a powerful Shiite militia in Baghdad.

"There's no Academy of Fine Arts to pay you $1,000 a month," his friend countered.

"In Jordan I could sell paintings," the first man said.

Qasim Sabti, the gregarious 54-year-old owner of Hewar, knows the debate well. A renowned painter and collage artist, he has held exhibitions in New York and Paris and fielded many invitations to teach abroad. He has rejected every one and says he will continue to reject them "as long as I live."

In Baghdad, he cannot sell his work or buy materials. He trusts almost nobody and, though he says he hates violence in all forms, he never goes anywhere without his revolver. He says that he hated Saddam Hussein but that his quality of life has deteriorated steadily since Hussein was overthrown.

Under Hussein, cultural events were subject to censorship, and public displays seen as subversive were punishable by a prison sentence or death. But half a dozen artists said that as long as they kept a relatively low profile, they worked without much fear. Now, they said, they are afraid to leave their homes or to tell anyone about their work for fear it will anger a cleric or an insurgent.


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