A SPLATTERING of black, white, and red binds a mass of darkly clothed brown bodies. Media outlets relish such portrayals of protesters carrying Iraqi flags in the rallies that erupt regularly in Baghdad, indicative of the strife that has beset Iraq in recent years. The images are understandably appealing: They possess a sense of drama, even an epic quality; perhaps those scenes also resonate with a disgruntled world numbed by pervasive injustices. In the same photographs, a colossal structure often appears, one not dissimilar to the demonstrators’ signs, rising above the crowds: the July 14th Monument, colloquially known as the Tahrir or Liberty Monument, a friezelike bronze-and-travertine structure more than 160 feet long, by artist Jewad Selim (1920–1961) and architect Rifat Chadirji (1926–2020).
Completed three years after Iraq’s 1958 coup d’état, or the July 14th Revolution, which effectively ended British influence in the country, this modernist artwork was conceived as a massive, permanent banner commemorating the struggles of Iraqis under colonialism. Immortalized in iconic photographs by Latif Al Ani, the monument is a relic of a newly independent republic, conjuring a moment when Iraqis, like many others in the non-West, sought freedom and self-determination. Since the devastating 2003 American-led invasion of the country, the monument has been embraced as a popular icon, an unlikely unifier of a nation whose aggrieved citizens, at least in the capital, usually gather at the eponymous Tahrir Square. The distinctive bronze reliefs have held up well, but the travertine-clad concrete structure has seen better days (although there were some purported surface improvements late last year, when the original stone was surreptitiously replaced). Those cracks and the occasional superficial repairs—like thin bandages over gushing wounds—are emblematic of the state of the country’s crumbling infrastructure.
The July 14th Monument is only one of the many works, in both art and architecture, born of a barely examined movement that flourished in mid-twentieth-century Baghdad. At that time, a critical mass of Iraqi modernists, a generation of young and in retrospect heroically ambitious artists and architects, started meeting regularly, and forming collectives and professional associations. They published their ideas, displayed their work in private and public venues, and gradually created more formal institutions that supported a nascent but spirited Iraqi art milieu. By 1961, when the monument was inaugurated, the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, founded by Selim with his then student Shakir Hassan Al Said (1926–2004), was already a decade old. This collective aimed to make a unique contribution to global art, one that was rooted in the specificity of local heritage yet also in dialogue with novel modes of expression. This vision of amplifying local characteristics to counter the erasures of colonialism reverberated in the postcolonial, newly independent nations of Southwest Asia (or the “Middle East”) and the non-West more broadly.
The legacy of that pioneering generation has found renewed appreciation over the past couple of decades. On the heels of Iraq’s destruction, there was an unprecedented market boom driven by major auction houses and recently established regional museums and collections, particularly in Lebanon and the Gulf, not to mention North American and European institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York, and Tate Modern in London, trying to correct course and diversify their modern and contemporary holdings. But this burgeoning global appetite for modern Iraqi art only obfuscates the nuances of a local story, one that goes beyond a few renowned names. The modernist generation molded a rich artistic culture, a whole ecosystem that continued to thrive and evolve throughout the upheavals of the ensuing decades, enduring despite the oppression of successive Iraqi governments—until the abrupt disruption of the savage 1990–91 Gulf War and the debilitating economic sanctions that followed, which starved Iraqis and precipitated a climate of survival that turned cultural activities into luxuries hardly anyone could afford. Any assessment of art in Iraq today must consider the pernicious long-term impact of American and international meddling in the country, which started much earlier than the 2003 invasion.
Owing to this prolonged sabotage, the legacy of Iraq’s modernist movement has lived on most vigorously within the diaspora. Among those who went into exile, and who have had remarkable careers despite the odds, is Mehdi Moutashar (b. 1943), based in Arles, France. A friend and mentee of Al Said’s, Moutashar started with drawings and prints in the ’60s and moved increasingly toward three-dimensional—even, in recent years, monumental—work. With exquisite acuity, he has been employing geometric abstraction to radically innovate on his heritage, and on the historical art and architecture of the Arab-Muslim world. Trois angles à 135°, 2005, is a sweeping, interlocking horizontal wooden structure, some of its components painted the artist’s signature ultramarine blue. While establishing a potent relationship with the viewer’s body and the space, Moutashar’s work alludes to the lyrical proportions of brickwork in the traditional architecture of Iraq and to the glazed cobalt tiles found in Babylonian ruins, around which he grew up, and in the superb ornamentation of local shrines. The gestural lines of the sculpture recall the dynamic thrust of Arabic calligraphy, but they are in fact tracings of a gargantuan interlaced pattern with which the artist has been experimenting for decades.
The London-based Suad Al-Attar (b. 1942) also spent her formative years in postwar Baghdad, growing up around Iraqi modernists. But in contrast to Moutashar’s minimalist constructions, she has adopted a sumptuous pictorial approach. In her paintings, characterized by dense, polychromatic, and enigmatic compositions, Al-Attar has explored a variety of subjects over the years. In some captivatingly verdant works like Spirit of the Magical Tree, 2008, she embeds an expansive array of references, such as the Garden of Eden (long associated with Mesopotamia), populated with mythological and folkloric motifs, all depicted in a nonperspectival projection like those seen in medieval illuminated manuscripts from Abbasid Iraq, as well as in regional carpets. Al-Attar’s career is remarkable, not just in terms of its success and longevity, but because the number of Iraqi women artists is relatively small in Iraq’s conservative patriarchal society. And although before 2003 Iraqi women had gained more rights—unparalleled in the region, particularly in the early years of the republic—gender equality has been greatly diminished since the invasion.
The burgeoning global appetite for modern Iraqi art only obfuscates the nuances of a local story, one that goes beyond a few renowned names.
It is crucial to acknowledge the significant contributions of these and other artists, including those who are no longer with us (many died quite young, some in tragic circumstances), who have carried on the teachings of Iraq’s mid-twentieth-century artistic culture. But such recognition should not obscure the overwhelming and wanton violence to which Iraqis, along with their art, have been subjected. The harm extends into the diaspora. While Iraqi artists abroad enjoy a certain degree of stability, those living in the West have had to put up with the hardships often suffered by racialized artists, who must evade marginalization or, in the case of those who hail from Southwest Asia, the inevitable Orientalist fetishization and misunderstanding of their work. And then there are the experiences that are not specific to cultural practitioners but shared by the millions who had to leave their homes behind, from highly educated migrants who fled Iraq incrementally, over the course of decades, to those displaced en masse as refugees in recent years. Several works by the artist Hiwa K (b. 1975), such as the videos Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) and View from Above, both 2017, evoke the agonies of generations of uprooted Iraqis both within and outside the country and articulate the sense of alienation they must navigate in the ostensibly safer environments where they seek asylum.
Without minimizing the struggles of Iraqis around the world, it is the severity of what took place in Iraq following the US invasion that defies measure or comprehension. The task of thoroughly taking stock of Iraq’s tribulations since 2003 is daunting, if not impossible; and to limit a discussion of the occupation’s repercussions to one field only, such as art, is to risk trivializing the grave consequences of an event that continues to haunt Iraqis today. To mark the twentieth anniversary of that occupation—one of the most brazen neocolonial adventures in recent history, and one that is far from over, despite official American rhetoric—and to understand its impact on Iraq’s art, we must situate the latter in a broader context. And there is so much to remember: that hundreds of thousands (some estimates put the number at well beyond a million) of innocent civilians have been murdered in the post-invasion mayhem; that Iraq, in addition to being the object of American aggression, has become a battleground for proxy wars among regional powers and is prone to frequent attacks, including suicide bombings and kidnappings, by extremist groups; that the country is now rife with human rights violations; that conditions for ethnic and religious minorities are dire; that gender equality (as noted earlier) is declining; that a whole generation of vulnerable orphans is growing up without proper support; that, in a nation enormously wealthy in natural resources, there is now widespread poverty, rampant corruption, high unemployment rates, and a dearth of basic services like electricity; that this once fertile land is running out of water and experiencing vast environmental degradation, soaring temperatures, intensifying droughts, and frequent sandstorms (induced by the eradication of the land’s green cover and the lack of responsible protective measures under the inept post-2003 government). And these are only some of the better-known travails wreaked by the invasion.
Few artists have captured the decimation of Iraqi life by the American-led invasion and by previous conflicts as consistently as Hanaa Malallah (b. 1958), who observed the wrecking of her country in one war after another until she finally left three years into the occupation. Also a close associate of Al Said’s, Malallah has created an extensive body of work predicated on the notion of incineration. She has routinely burned her materials, and has weathered, aged, and distressed her canvases, with the aim of suggesting a general state of decay, of omnipresent death. Shroud IV, 2012, is more like a compressed wall-mounted sculpture than a painting; its dense surface resembles a landscape that has been ruined by a blazing fire. There is an underlying order, a grid of sorts, that modulates the unwieldy pouches of scorched and twisted canvas. Inside the folded fabric, and strewn in between, are little lumps of soil, seeds, small twigs, fragments of amulets, and even parts of taxidermied birds that seem to have been embalmed for some impenetrable burial ritual. This piece speaks to the indiscriminate fury of war, but I also see it as connoting the senseless erosion of the organically and painstakingly built artistic culture of Iraq—a deterioration that Malallah, as a participant in and beneficiary of that culture, witnessed.
Indeed, among the innumerable blows dealt by the invasion, the swift dismantling of the nation’s carefully constructed cultural infrastructure—established by Iraqi modernists in dialogue with the character, needs, and challenges of their wider society, and subsequently maintained not just by governments but by the grassroots efforts of generations of artists—must be given its due weight. An often overlooked aspect of this story is how these artists had worked to develop a sense of appreciation among local audiences, who were being introduced to a new definition of art spread by a heterogeneous global modernism, the paradigms of which were distinct from those of preexisting traditions. They also inaugurated educational programs, galleries and art museums, publications, and other modalities of displaying, disseminating, and convening around artistic production. These efforts had a tremendous impact not only in Iraq but throughout the region. One of the catastrophic repercussions of the invasion was that it undermined decades of that labor.
Among the reckless policies implemented by the American occupation authority after taking over the country was de-Ba’athification, a witch hunt intended to purge Ba’ath Party members, associated with the toppled regime, from civil service, even though many of these people were innocuous, having been coerced into joining the party, often as a condition of employment. De-Ba’athification instantly destroyed Iraq’s institutional memory and continuity, removing the workforce that had maintained the nation’s infrastructure, including those who sustained its artistic milieu during the ruthless sanctions of the ’90s. Subsequent Iraqi governments have had to contend not only with physically compromised facilities but also with this immense intellectual and professional vacuum. The instability that followed the invasion took its toll, too. Personal vendettas, pursued, for example, by surviving family members of those who were subjected to the cruelty of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, eliminated many of these former workers. There was also a spate of mysterious assassinations targeting academics, highly skilled workers in various fields, and community leaders. The attrition was exacerbated by the so-called civil war, which reached its ferocious zenith around 2006–2007, annihilating even more of the population. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, which metastasized throughout much of post-invasion Iraq, were not exactly keen on the arts, and the latter’s role in the leveling of Mosul and other parts of the country was an unspeakable calamity for Iraq’s heritage and culture.
The bloodshed was the grim mirror image of the preceding assault on local institutions. Immediately following the invasion, the world watched with horror as the news trickled in of the ransacking of the Iraq Museum, the repository of countless invaluable treasures from ancient Mesopotamia. The fact that this particular catastrophe garnered significant global attention was not surprising: Even among credentialed art historians, there are those who still perpetuate the absurd notion that pre-Islamic Iraq constituted the root of Western civilization—a perplexing narrative conveniently constructed in modern Europe, where disciplines like art history took shape as precious artifacts were being misappropriated from a colonized Southwest Asia to bolster the continent’s and America’s museums. But even that idea, promulgated in some of the outraged media coverage of the 2003 invasion, did not save the Iraq Museum. American leadership pretended to be taken aback by the looting of museums and archaeological sites, basically blaming Iraqis for their failure to placidly rejoice in their purported liberation, while the occupying troops did nothing to intervene.
The streets have been the most suitable spaces for displaying some of the most compelling work being produced in Iraq these days.
But scant attention was paid to attacks on other Iraqi art and cultural institutions. Numerous cultural organizations, schools, libraries, and archives were looted, burned, and vandalized during the early days of the invasion, and the staggering loss remains impossible to quantify because inventories of these institutions’ contents were also destroyed. This disaster was certainly preventable, and the fact that it was not averted by the notorious perpetrators of preemptive strikes led many to ponder whether it was not merely an act of gross negligence but a deliberate tactic. The US administration made sure to pilfer the Ba’ath Party’s records, safely transporting millions of documents to the States (where they are now housed in Stanford University’s Hoover Institution), and possibly cleansing the files of evidence of America’s well-known support for the Saddam Hussein regime, especially during the horrific Iraq-Iran War (1980–88). And US troops famously protected the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, clearly conveying the occupiers’ priorities. Several artists have reflected on the role oil played in justifying the atrocities committed in Iraq. The video Majnoon Field, 2019, by Rheim Alkadhi (b. 1973), is a wrenching commentary on the gruesome consequences of extraction, from pollution to homicide.
While the US looked after its strategic interests, priceless and irreplaceable modern and contemporary artworks were pillaged along with the ancient ones. The modern art was housed primarily in the Pioneers Museum, located in a traditional Baghdadi mansion not far from Tahrir Square. Most of the stolen contemporary art had been in what used to be called the Saddam Center for the Arts, constructed by the former regime only a few blocks from the Iraq Museum (which held Islamic artifacts in addition to Mesopotamian antiquities). The latter venue has been taken over by the current Ministry of Culture, and part of this large complex has been turned into the National Museum of Modern Art (not to be confused with the former National Museum of Modern Art, colloquially known as the Gulbenkian Museum, established in Baghdad in the early ’60s and mostly used for temporary exhibitions). The collection of the most remarkable modern and contemporary Iraqi art acquired by local governments over the course of the twentieth century—a collection consisting of at least eight thousand artworks—is largely gone. Reports vary, but it is estimated that no more than a quarter of the previous holdings have been recovered. Many works were found to have been smuggled out of Iraq and traded on the black market. Some are apparently in collections around the region. The repatriated ones have been torn during the robberies, remain in poor storage conditions, and are in desperate need of restoration.
But there is new work being produced in Iraq today, and there is a constant supply of artists. Students continue to be trained in the two schools established by the modernists: the Institute of Fine Arts, founded in the late ’30s and offering secondary-level education, and the College of Fine Arts, which started operating in the early ’60s as the Academy of Fine Arts, and is currently administered by the University of Baghdad. The education the students receive is far from competitive, but it is the best the country can do under the prevailing unjust and demoralizing circumstances. Training has deteriorated significantly in both schools since the early 2000s. They are government-run, and art is far from a priority in an Iraq controlled by conservative religious factions. The impoverished curricula focus on outdated academic representational tropes, reflecting the decades of isolation during which Iraqis, practically living under siege, have been unable to visit global art centers. The cruel irony is that most of the countries that participated in invading Iraq, including the US, have enforced severe travel restrictions against Iraqis, posing barriers that prevent artists, teachers, and other art professionals from accessing international exhibition platforms, schools, and residencies or attending gatherings abroad. Upon graduation, finding no avenues to sustain an art career, and no longer having a serious local audience that supports their work, artists are obliged to either abandon their creative practices or flee the country, braving a treacherous journey in hopes of gaining admittance to places where they can have some latitude.
In this stifled context, the state of art writing—in history, theory, and criticism—and publishing is pitiful, considering Iraq’s previous regional leadership in these domains. Curatorial practice might be familiar to locals, mostly through exposure to online or published sources, but it is essentially nonexistent. There is some commercial activity, which at least provides a narrow avenue for a relatively small number of artists to share their work. These include Qassem Sebti’s Hewar Art Gallery, which opened in 1992, and a few newer spaces: Haider Hashim’s Akkad Gallery and the Gallery, operated by the conglomerate Al Handal International Group, which also runs a gallery at the Station, a coworking facility. The number and range of extant venues pale in comparison with the state of affairs prior to the invasion. Younger artists complain that most of the current galleries are uninterested in critical work or new media and in some cases have questionable political affiliations or agendas. So the streets have been the most suitable spaces for displaying some of the most compelling work being produced in Iraq these days, like the graffiti and murals that accompanied the 2019 protests around Tahrir Square known as the October Revolution. These interventions included Aqdar Ashufak (I Can See You), 2013/2019, an incisive critique of power by Sajjad Abbas (b. 1993) coupling the titular statement with an enlarged image of the artist’s eye staring down the Green Zone—the seat of Iraq’s current government and home to the largest US embassy in the world.
Undoubtedly, under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, the situation was a far cry from Iraq’s earlier heyday as a regional center known for its patronage of and unwavering commitment to art—with rare exceptions, artists were pressured to toe a propagandist line. But nowadays there is barely any government support for the artists who try to survive in Iraq. And international funding agencies that allow artists to work independently in other countries in the region typically exclude Iraq, presumably as a wealthy nation capable of supporting its own artists. If any foreign support is offered, it usually requires proficiency in English or some other European language, which local education hardly provides. This leaves artists dependent on private initiatives such as the Ruya Foundation, launched in 2012 by Tamara Chalabi, which has realized a few iterations of a “National Pavilion of Iraq” at the Venice Biennale, not strictly engaging Iraqi artists. In 2015, a German living in Baghdad, Hella Mewis, started Tarkib, which describes itself as a collective but is technically a one-person operation that has organized exhibitions for local artists. Perhaps the most effective program, which officially ran from 2011 to 2015 but remained active informally, is Sada (Echo for Contemporary Iraqi Art), established by Rijin Sahakian with the aim of providing educational support, offered mostly online, for young art students in Baghdad. Since its official closure because of the dangerous conditions in the country, Sada has been connecting its former students with venues abroad, an example being its recent participation in the latest iteration of Documenta.
While I am focusing here on Baghdad, the historical center of artistic production, I must emphasize that the city’s reality is very different from that of others like Mosul and Basrah, which experienced various kinds of upheaval in recent years, or of the more stable Kurdistan region. Much of Iraq, however, has undergone such excruciating trials that I must acknowledge my positionality as well, to distinguish myself from those who pontificate as self-proclaimed experts and profit off Iraqi misery. In the late ’90s, my family had to escape conditions that made dignified living impossible for us. But growing up in Baghdad made me who I am today. I still have strong ties to Iraq, including close relatives, and I want to be buried there. I dedicated over a decade to studying the country’s modern art and architecture. And yet I only speak for myself, because, despite various struggles since leaving my ancestral homeland, I realize that it is still a privilege to have been spared the havoc of the invasion. I hope other Iraqis, with lived experience of the pain of recent years, will share their perspectives too.
It would be disingenuous to suggest there has been an artistic revival. Equally, however, it would be a mischaracterization to say there is no art at all, or to describe Iraqis as anything less than resilient and resourceful.
Otherwise, we are at the mercy of reductive representations, especially in the mostly clueless West. Recently, and apart from the protests that break out sporadically, Iraq has enjoyed a slightly better security situation since the costly defeat of ISIS in late 2017. But it would be disingenuous to suggest there has been an artistic revival, as some overly enthusiastic Western journalists have been claiming. In fact, it is demeaning to laud the current degradation of the country’s artistic culture. That is either exaggerated optimism or a myopic and patronizing view of a society seen as incapable of anything better. Ignorant misrepresentations of Iraq’s people and the its weakened artistic culture only compound the impact of the hostilities the country has endured. Equally, however, it would be a mischaracterization to say there is no art at all, or to describe Iraqis as anything less than resilient and resourceful. This is precisely why it is imperative to appreciate the conditions prior to the invasion. Rather than appraising the situation in comparison with an unattainable ideal elsewhere, we should attend to what Iraqis accomplished when they enjoyed some peace and freedom.
Despite all the difficulties, contemporary Iraq has yielded such exceptional talent that I can only remain hopeful. Ali Eyal (b. 1994) was a child in Baghdad during the invasion, and in his tender works he captures both the nightmarish absurdity of the conflict and the more intimate aspects of survivors’ lives. His polychromatic fabulations in a variety of media, often with a focus on painting, negotiate the harrowing events he witnessed by mixing the ordinary with the surreal, calling forth the ways in which Iraqis process the traumas of war. In the collage 6×9 doesn’t fit everything, 2021, presented as a large light box, he layers reproductions of sketches, albums, and open folders, implying an unresolved case. The title suggests that no frame could possibly capture the scale of what transpired following the invasion. Eyal himself lost his father and several uncles in 2006, all of whom disappeared without a trace. In the foreground of this work is the verso of a photograph, presumably of his father’s firebombed car, held by the artist’s hands. The photograph’s actual content is denied the viewer, who can access only Eyal’s inscription, relaying memories of his encounter with American forces as a child. Behind the photograph is a drawing featuring the unsettling visual syntax Eyal has developed, wherein anatomical imagery, an allegory for carnage, intermingles with botanical iconography that stages “The Farm,” a nonsensical alternative world of shadows that Eyal invented. Through this highly personal language, the artist insistently brings to public consciousness narratives that have been concealed or suppressed.
After studying at the Institute of Fine Arts, Eyal was fortunate enough to receive some private support for advancing his training in Beirut and Amsterdam. He now lives in Los Angeles, another member of the Iraqi diaspora—a community integral to Iraqi society writ large and, to my mind, one that makes Iraq’s story a fundamentally global one. I do not mean to propose just that Iraq’s brain drain has benefited other places, particularly the countries that ravaged it. I am hinting at some of the causes of the unprecedented number of displaced people today all over the planet. I also believe that Eyal’s work captures the dynamics of this world, driving home the idea that Iraq’s turmoil is emblematic of a general state of collapse creeping up everywhere. Iraq’s condition speaks to all the normalized inequities, polarization, dispossession, and obliteration of entire cultural traditions brought about by the greed, apathy, and callousness of dominant powers. It unveils the consequences of voracious energy consumption, the depletion of natural resources, and environmental deterioration. It brings to mind the military-industrial complex, fueled by ideological rivalries between neoliberal capitalism and other worldviews. Perhaps the dystopia of Iraq is nothing but a harbinger of the bleak future awaiting the complicit masses in the more privileged societies that stand idle, watching the plight of their fellow human beings with startling indifference.
Given the culpability of the United States, Iraq is also inseparable from America’s reality: It is about American empire, the squandering of American taxes, American resource extraction, the absence of American accountability (none of the architects of the invasion or of the ambiguous War on Terror more broadly have ever been penalized for their atrocities). It is about the hypocrisy of American rhetoric around sealing borders and curbing immigration, conspiring to bar those most affected by America’s politics from seeking refuge in the States. It is also about how American police brutality reflects its military transgressions abroad—how imperial violence in colonies always embodies the metropole’s pathologies. Ineptitude or unpreparedness are no excuse for what happened in Iraq, and it would be dismally naive to contend that the world’s most powerful nation decided to invade a smaller country on the other side of the world without an agenda. The war crimes committed in Iraq, including the hollowing-out of the country’s artistic culture and civic life, were and are invested not only in eliminating voices of reason, collectivity, and resistance, but also in perpetuating insidious narratives depicting the peoples of the region as Arab-Muslim savages who invite and deserve whatever befalls them. America’s entanglement in Iraq is a textbook example of the all too familiar colonial strategies of cultural genocide and plunder, of divide and conquer, while ensuring a steady flow of vital resources, particularly oil, despite the absolute chaos visited by occupiers on the occupied.
But it is one thing for the ruling class to be co-opted and fractured and another to turn Iraqis against one another. Citizens have been coming together, especially in the ongoing protests, united by common causes regardless of creed or affiliation, thanks to an indomitable spirit of defiance that demands justice, denounces incompetence, and calls for the dignified life that Iraqis deserve. And if Iraqis are assembling around a modernist monument, then perhaps art is not a rarefied realm, an extravagance that can be enjoyed only after all other crises are addressed. Art has the power to heal and to crystallize a new vision for a country in tatters. But the resuscitation of Iraq’s imperiled art is not solely the responsibility of Iraqis. It is incumbent on the United States, and on the international community that endorsed or turned a blind eye to the invasion, to support Iraqi artists and art professionals. Institutions worldwide can assist by simply providing Iraqis with opportunities to learn and grow, and with platforms to tell their stories. Iraq’s artistic culture is diminished but remains unvanquished, and Iraqis can be empowered to create with vigor once again, as they always have.
Amin Alsaden is a writer and curator based in Toronto.