Iraqi artists tell their story after pulling art from Berlin Biennale

A mural in Baghdad depicting the late Iraqi artist Mahood Ahmed, one of several painted in the city by Wijdan al-Majed.  (Alice Martins for the Washington Post)
A mural in Baghdad depicting the late Iraqi artist Mahood Ahmed, one of several painted in the city by Wijdan al-Majed. (Alice Martins for the Washington Post)

BAGHDAD – When three Iraqi artists were invited to exhibit their work at this year’s Berlin Biennale, the organizing themes – decolonization and repair – promised to give voice to a theme the trio understood better than most.

Both grew up in the shadow of the 2003 invasion of America, and their art now grapples with its aftermath. A film by Layth Kareem explored trauma and healing in the community. Sayyad Abbas brought a banner with a picture of his eye that he once hung across Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone to symbolize the Iraqi experience of watching the $2 trillion occupation.

But as the group entered the exhibition hall, another installation about Iraq emerged the largest: a series of war trophies captured by US soldiers – photographs of the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison – captured by a French artist was presented to the shock of the visitors to the gallery.

“There was just this idea that it’s good for us — it’s good for the world — just to see those paintings again,” said Iraqi-American art curator Rijin Sahakian, who introduced the artists to the exhibition organizers.

The episode focuses on uncomfortable questions: Who got to tell Iraq’s recent history on the world stage? And where is the work of the Iraqi artists who live it?

“All we’ve asked for is a voice that isn’t talked about,” Sahakian said. “The participating Iraqi artists were simply grouped together with the photographs.”

Although a small number of Iraqi artists exhibit their work internationally, the country’s visual representations are usually dominated by Western news media.

Iraq’s artists were once among the most celebrated in the region. In 1951, Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group as they searched for a distinctive Iraqi artistic identity, blending modernist styles with local history and motifs.

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But over time her work was co-opted by political forces, and by the late 1980s Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party dominated the art scene and used it for propaganda.

Today the Iraqi government is one of the most corrupt in the world. Public services are failing, the power grid is down and extreme heat is destroying land that once provided food and jobs.

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As a new generation of Iraqis works to tell their own stories through contemporary art, they face obstacles at every turn.

Baghdad’s yellow brick institute for fine arts only teaches classical methods, so students turning to new media must use any space they can find. They work at home, on rooftops, or together in small studios, often with limited funds and little storage space for the pieces they produce.

Private galleries exist but are hard to reach and often require personal connections and money for outreach. Grant funding requires applications in fluent English. When international opportunities arise, many artists find that they cannot obtain visas for their own exhibitions.

“It takes a lot of networking and time,” said Hella Mewis, a German-born art curator from Baghdad. “You have to know the system, the art market, and that’s very complicated.”

But the city has a sanctuary: Beit Tarkib, or the Installation House, tucked away in the historical district of Karrada among the old Jewish houses and tall palm trees. Founded in 2015 by Mewis, the venue is dedicated to promoting contemporary art with studios for the artists and spaces for young people to learn drawing techniques, ballet and musical instruments.

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From every wall, the artists’ works show the contours of Iraqi life. Photographs and sculptures show the changing face of Baghdad. A Sumerian-style house brush invites visitors to sweep away the judgment of a sometimes closed and conservative society. In one room, an oil painting of a dirty white shirt captures intimate details of what a person experiences when a car bomb shatters an ordinary day.

When a Palestinian artist recently visited, he described the tone of the work as different from the rest of the region, Mewis recalled. “Here he said that you can see with every artist that he is Iraqi. There are different styles, but you don’t see the Western influence,” she said. “That’s the nicest compliment we’ve ever received.”

In April 2019, they unveiled their artworks in the Abu Nawas Street public gardens, and the exhibits felt like an outcry against corruption and stifled ambition.

In hindsight, Mewis realized, it hit the pulse of a society on the brink of revolt. Seven months later, small protests against state corruption turned into a full-scale uprising against the political system, and artists from all walks of life joined Iraqis.

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After more than 600 people were killed in a government raid, protesters etched this story into the walls. Near Tahrir Square in Baghdad, a gray stone underpass turned into a colorful riot. Murals showed the names and faces of the dead in gold calligraphy and black-and-white sketches.

Zaid Saad was among the artists exhibiting at this 2019 festival, and the 31-year-old’s work – suitcases molded from concrete – focused on the rejection Iraqis face when trying to reach Europe or America.

One day he wants this work to be on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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While studying at the Institute of Fine Arts, he and his friends made plans for future projects. But amid growing economic desperation, at least 10 of them boarded migrant boats bound for Europe in 2015.

Part of the group died at sea. Others made it, but fell out of joint.

Millions of Iraqis have fled the country since 2003, fleeing violence and poverty.

In the entrance hall of Beit Tarkib is a work by Saad to reflect this loss: a white door from near the central bank on Rasheed Street has been fixed to the wall, and half a bicycle wheel protrudes from the wood.

“This is about our plans and how they stuck with me,” he said, looking at the spokes of the half-wheel. “The other half has traveled to another world, and I can’t see what’s over there.”

Saad now makes his sculptures outdoors after the summer heat has subsided. A floodlight illuminates the terrace like a stage. The process is silent, sometimes meditative as he fuses water with cement and the mixture covers his hand like a glove.

On a recent night, a driver honked his horn in the street, but Saad was busy with his work. “I think about so many things while I’m doing this,” he said.

His latest exhibit again focused on migration, and his friends were still on his mind. “Some of them trusted me so much that they told me they were leaving before telling their families,” he said.

His work was almost done and he was pouring the final concrete into his mould.

“I’m always sad when I read news about the refugees,” he said.

“Is it such a big deal letting people in?”

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