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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)

"The other artists in the world are so lucky because they can do their art without trouble," Sabti said. "But for me, I reject that kind of happiness. I made my decision to remain an Iraqi artist, and so I stay in Iraq."

Sabti said his sense of his work as an artist changed forever on the first day of the American invasion, when he went to check on the Academy of Fine Art, his alma mater. Stepping into the school's library just down the block from his gallery, he began to cry as he saw that the building had been looted and set on fire.

"It was horrible," Sabti said, shaking his head. "It had been a place of life, and in one day the mob turned it into a graveyard."

For the past four years, Sabti has created collages using pieces of books that he salvaged that day, a series he describes as an effort to triumph over the destruction of Baghdad through art. About three weeks ago, he made his final collage out of the books. He says the project drained him emotionally.

Sabti's collages -- giant canvases with torn pages of books, rough edges and clashing color schemes -- reflect the emotion of living in a war zone. But his work is not outwardly political, a characteristic it shares with much of the art produced in Iraq. Muayad Muhsin, a painter in the city of Hilla who frequently visits the Hewar Gallery, is one of a few artists who are explicit in their artistic criticism of what he calls "America's soulless might and arrogance."

Muhsin, 42, became internationally known for a 2006 painting called "Picnic," which shows then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- considered a chief architect of the war in Iraq -- reading a report with his combat boots on an ancient gravestone. A statue of a lion, the symbol of ancient Babylon, towers over Rumsfeld as papers fly out of its base and turn into white birds.

"They kept saying they had reason to come into Iraq, but instead of finding weapons, they found a civilization with birds of knowledge and peace," Muhsin said.

Like Sabti, Muhsin has turned down opportunities to leave Iraq, saying that moving away would be giving in to the insurgents.

"War destroys art, but I have a responsibility to be here in my country," he said. "When the war happened, they wanted to continue life as if nothing changed, but it did change."

Mixed-media artist Shaddad Abdulkahhar said the main change in his own life since the war began was his decision to close his nine-year-old Baghdad gallery and art studio after a car bomb exploded directly outside. Anxiety attacks after the bombing last year limited his creative abilities for a while, he said, but the threat to his work has strengthened his resolve to remain in Iraq.

A few months ago, Abdulkahhar resumed his work, moving from a realistic to an abstract style. Using wax, paint and small found items, he creates collages that he says are not directly influenced by his feelings about the war.

"I think there was a period when I could not believe what happened and I was painting as if nothing was going on," he said. "I think I still need some time to process. Maybe within a few years I'll change my style, once I understand what happened."

Samarrai said that he also worries about Iraq's future without its native-born artists but that he felt he had no choice but to leave Baghdad. He said that initially he was angry at his friends who moved away, but when faced with an inability to create the art he believes is his life's calling, he made plans to relocate as well. Sometime in the next several months, he will pack his family's belongings and move to Sulaymaniyah in Iraq's relatively safe, semiautonomous Kurdish region.

Samarrai said he is afraid that within a few years there will be hardly any artists left in Iraq. The artists who are moving are not being replaced by a sizable younger generation, he said.

"I have taught at the academy for many years," he said. "It used to be that I would teach 60 students a year. This year just three students graduated in ceramics. Can you imagine?"

Sabti, whose Hewar Gallery is widely considered the center of what remains of the Baghdad art world, said he once believed the looting of the Academy of Fine Arts and the city's main art museum to be the low point for Iraqi artists. Now, he says, so many artists have left that he is afraid Iraq will not recover from the cultural vacuum within his lifetime.

"A country needs its politicians and its doctors, yes, but it also needs artists to create the culture," he said. "Without artists, it is just as bad as it would be without a president."

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