Let the creativity flow

With the war in Iraq abating, Iraqi artists begin to talk about their hopes, aspirations and life under Saddam Hussein.

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By  John Irish Published  July 1, 2003

|~||~||~|Mesopotamia anybody? Dating back almost 6,000 years, the cultural legacy of the area often referred to as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ now fills international museum halls. While US forces are accused of failing to protect artifacts from looters and pillaging, the generation of modern day Iraqi artists, usually based outside the country, is beginning to speak out on life under Saddam, its aspirations and the future of its trade. During a recent exhibition, held in Dubai, Arabian Business spoke to painter Nazar Yahya and sculptor Ahmed Al Bahrani.

AB: How did you get into art?

AAB: It started from childhood. I lived in a village where the houses were made of mud, and from an early age, I played with it, whereas other children did other things. I used to go to the ruins during school trips around Babylon, and see sculptures and in the first year at University, I was drawn to it.
NY: It was destiny.

AB: What or who were your influences?

AAB: There was a lot of sculpture, a lot of monuments, many artists started this way, and sculptors had a pioneer in Iraq, Jawad Salim. He is the father of sculpture. Iraqi sculptors have very similar works, once you see one [of Salam’s sculptures], you know that it is very different. He found a different way of expressing art, so that it was international, so that anybody around the world could appreciate his work.
NY: From the very beginning, Iraqi art was very rich not, only in the number of artists but in the types of art, and the materials they used. There’s been a gap in terms of historical sequence in Iraqi artists, and a lot of emmigration, especially in terms of the older generation. So, we were really dependent on ourselves for influences. Whatever outside influence, was minimal compared to other places.

AB: What is your message when you paint?

AAB: It all depends on the eyes of the person that looks at the sculpture. In the Arab world, the problem is that people do not appreciate the quality of the work, especially if it is abstract. My job as a sculptor is to educate people and help them understand my work.
NY: Irrespective of being Iraqi or non-Iraqi, especially [when it comes to] abstract art, it’s a matter of a visual education, so people walk in and either see a message or not, it will be as you interpret it.

AB: It’s easy to say “I want people to read into it what they want”, but you must have some sort of message?

NY: Obviously each painting has a message and it requires an expert to understand the message …or not as the case might be.
AB: How do you select your different artistic stages?

NY: Picasso used to say that when he walked into a green room and came out, everything he painted was green. Art therefore is a reflection of what goes on around the artist. Art throughout history paints the civilisation. I’d say there are two kinds of artists: those that are interested in civilisation and those interested in money. I’m in the first bracket.

AB: Why did you leave Iraq?

AAB: There was no direct political interference with Iraqi artists, but there was an economic one. I was one of the lucky ones who could leave Iraq early in 1993. In Iraq, the problem is not really political, it’s more economical. A lot of Iraqi artists were forced to work for the regime to survive. I couldn’t be true to myself and support my family inside Iraq without producing work that I wasn’t interested in doing.
NY: During Saddam there was a problem with the standard of living. People wanted a certain standard, but didn’t have it. The artist was like any other person in Iraq. He wanted to put food on the table, and when people found it difficult, they started leaving Iraq. It wasn’t just economic reasons; I also wanted to experience the West in terms of art. The artist and educated elite in Iraq have nothing to do with politics, but politics invades them, whether they live at home or stay abroad. If they stay at home, and do art that is not good quality, they are invaded by politics. Yet, if they leave their country and work somewhere else, they are also invaded by politics.

AB: Was it easier or harder for a painter or a sculptor?

AAB: There were people who painted for the state, who wanted to draw portraits of certain people in the regime, but we don’t consider these people the elite of the artists. They are just called artists because they could paint. The advantage of an artist, especially a painter as opposed to a sculptor, is they work very individually, so we didn’t have to say things or paint things like a singer would have to do. It’s very individual.
NY: Sculptors were under even more pressure because the regime needed them more. All civilisations had this, from Romans to Greeks. Civilisations leave sculpture behind and that was Saddam Hussein’s intention.

AB: Where do you see the future for Iraqi art and yourself?

AAB: I see myself outside Iraq. One of the challenges is to provide materials for young artists in Iraq, because they use old materials, and are short on equipment. For future generations, I hope they will use their freedom to express their art. In Iraq there has always been a strong [artistic]movement, so I’d like them to use their freedom to express their art in a free country.
NY: I would love to go back to Iraq, but this question is the hardest to answer. Because nobody knows what will happen to Iraq, it’s not easy to see the future. I now live in Amman, which is a tough city, and if somebody can live in Amman they can live anywhere. It would have been much easier for me to paint for the Iraqi government at the time, but I didn’t. It was more of a struggle, on a personal and artistic level. I appreciated what my family went through, but after what has happened in Iraq, I’d like to have my piece of mind as an artist and do my job as an artist.||**||

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