Iraqi artists tell their stories after taking art from the Berlin Biennale

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

Each had grown up in the shadow of America’s 2003 invasion, and their art now grapples with its aftermath. A Layth Kareem film explored community trauma and healing. Sajjad Abbas brought with him a banner depicting his eye, which he once hung across Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, intended to symbolize the Iraqi experience of watching the $2 trillion occupation.

But as the group entered the exhibition hall, another installation about Iraq loomed large: a series of war trophies taken by American soldiers – pictures of the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison – presented by a French artist to shock the visitors of the gallery.

“There was just the idea that this is what is good for us – this is what is good for the world – to see these images again,” said Iraqi-American art curator Rijin Sahakian, who introduced the artists to the organizers of the exhibition.

The episode brings up uneasy questions: Who has been allowed to tell Iraq’s recent history on the world stage? And where is the work of the Iraqi artists who live up to it?

“All we have asked for is to have a voice that is not spoken of,” Sahakian said. “The Iraqi artists who participated were simply grouped by the photos.”

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

Iraq’s artists were once among the region’s most famous. In 1951, Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group in pursuit of a distinctive Iraqi artistic identity, mixing modernist styles with local history and motifs.

But over time, their work was co-opted by political forces, and by the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Baath 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 fail, the power grid is on its knees and extreme heat is destroying land that once provided food and employment.

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Like a new generation of Iraqis telling their own stories through contemporary art, they encounter hurdles at every step.

The yellow brick Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad only teaches classical methods, so students going to new media should use all the space they can find. They work at home, on rooftops or together in small studios, often with limited resources and little storage space for the pieces they produce.

Private galleries exist but are difficult to break into and often require personal connections and money for publicity. Grant funding requires applications in fluent English. When international opportunities arise, many artists find themselves unable to 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 it’s very complicated.”

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

From every wall, the work of the artists shows the contours of Iraqi life. Photos and sculptures map 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 about what a person experiences when a car bomb tears an ordinary day apart.

When a Palestinian artist recently visited, he described the tone of the work as being distinct from the rest of the region, Mewis recalls. “Here he said that with every artist you see that they are Iraqi. There are different styles, but you don’t see the western influence,” she said. “This is the best compliment we’ve ever received.”

In April 2019, they spread their artwork across the public gardens of Abu Nawas Street, and the exhibits felt like a cry against corruption and stifled ambition.

In retrospect, Mewis realized it was taking the pulse of a society on the brink of revolt. Seven months later, small protests against state corruption turned into a large-scale uprising against the political system, with artists joining Iraqis from all walks of life.

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After more than 600 people were killed in government crackdowns, the protesters etched that history onto the walls. Near Tahrir Square in Baghdad, a gray stone underpass turned into a riot of color. Murals showed the names and faces of the dead, in golden calligraphy and black and white sketches.

Zaid Saad was one of the artists exhibiting at that 2019 festival, and the 31-year-old’s work — suitcases cast from concrete — focused on the rejection Iraqis face when trying to reach Europe or America.

One day he wants that work to be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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

Part of the group died at sea. Others made it, but lost contact.

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

In the hall of Beit Tarkib hangs a work that Saad used to represent that loss: a white door from near the central bank of Rasheed Street is attached to the wall, and half a bicycle wheel protrudes from the forest towards the viewer.

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

Saad makes his sculptures outside now that the summer heat has ebbed. 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.

Recently, a driver blared his horn in the street, but Saad was preoccupied with his work. “I think about so many things when I do this,” he said.

His last exhibit was again focused on migration, and he was still thinking about his friends. “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 poured the last concrete into the mould.

“I always feel sad when I read news about refugees,” he said.

“Is it so bad to let people in?”

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