Qasim Sebti, owner of the Dialogue Gallery in Baghdad.
Qasim Sebti, owner of the Dialogue Gallery in Baghdad. (Josh Partlow -- The Washington Post)
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

BAGHDAD The images he has seen influence his art.

The severed leg in the garden of the Iraqi Artists Union. The bullet hole in his 17-year-old son's bedroom window. The tall concrete walls that surround his Baghdad art gallery. But these days, Qasim Sebti is thinking about the books.

In the early days after the invasion, he saw the looting and burning at the Fine Arts Institute, and a man standing on a stack of art books to steal a fluorescent light bulb. Sebti, 55, now makes collages out of the spines and covers of torn and dirty books, scraps that "you would kick if you saw it in the street."

Sebti, who owns the Dialogue Gallery, has lost count of how many friends have fled the country or stayed and died. He has let go all but one gallery employee. But he will not leave Iraq or close his gallery.

"This is the last castle to defend," he said. "I'm the last man of the Mohicans. I'm the leader. I must stay. I can help the others do the art, away from the religious styles, away from the political. I'm fighting by my own special way. I'm fighting by culture and art."

He shudders to think about the new Iraqi government -- "50 percent Iranians," he said -- and what he considers its disregard for culture and its lack of interest in anything but artistic homage to Islam.

"The blue, the black, the red. These three colors entered our lives," he said. The red is the blood. The black represents the women cloaked head-to-toe in abayas, as though in perpetual mourning. "The blue is the sadness inside the people. This is the new Iraqi palette for the artists."

He adds: "Can I ask my President Bush -- your president and my president -- can I ask him something before he leaves Iraq? Read our history well, and apologize."

-- Joshua Partlow

© 2008 The Washington Post Company