Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Art flowers again in Iraq as violence ebbs

Six years after the US-led invasion, art galleries are reopening in Baghdad in the first signs of a renaissance in what was long a cultural capital of the Arab world.

As they did for centuries before, Iraqi artists are again showing the way, taking advantage of the reduction in sectarian bombings to rebuild a proud tradition.

Galleries in the capital, whether owned privately or by the ministry of culture, have launched a new four-month season of exhibitions, reviving a practice which began in the 1950s but then fell victim to the invasion.

"The galleries are showing a remarkable return to a high level of activity," Salah Abbas, who sits on the independent Plastic Artists commission, told AFP. The plastic arts use materials that can be shaped.

"We have received dozens of requests to open galleries in Baghdad and other cities," said Abbas, editor of Tashkeel, the culture ministry's magazine.

"We will do it with the cooperation of the culture ministry," he added, although artists are not being subsidised by the government.

Abbas said falling levels of violence across much of the country had a "psychological impact on both the artists and art lovers who visit the galleries."

February saw 258 Iraqis killed after 191 died in January, the lowest official casualty figures since the 2003 war.

The past year saw a dramatic improvement in the security situation. In 2008, 6,772 Iraqis died in the violence, but in January 2007 alone there were 2,087 killed.

"The galleries suffered badly and were forced to close their doors. So artists resorted to foreign galleries to market their works," Abbas said. "But now the scene is greatly changed and galleries are reopening."

Before the invasion in March 2003, Baghdad alone boasted some 60 galleries.

However only three battled on after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime -- Hewar, Akad and Madarat, along with the individual studios of a small number of painters.

Today exhibitions are being held of the works of leading Iraqi artists Alaa al-Hamdani, Sattar Luqman and Monther Ali. More artists are due to exhibit in the city shortly.

"The large number of different cultural activities that are going on, including the plastic arts, reflect Iraqi yearning for culture, art and literature", Abbas said.

Writers and poets hold weekly meetings, and in October last year Baghdad's National Theatre staged its first evening performances since the invasion.

In the south, Basra and Hilla each boast three galleries which are now open, as do the northern cities of Arbil and Sulaimaniyah.

Sculptor Monther Ali believes the improved security situation is encouraging people to go out more.

"The opportunity to set up galleries is there now and it's easier to travel," the 61-year-old said. "Psychology plays a major part in motivating people to visit art galleries."

Ali currently has an exhibition called "A Memory in Baghdad" at the Madarat gallery, near the fine arts school.

He said he felt the city was "a lush garden before it was subjected to violence and destruction. We want intimacy and peace after what Baghdad suffered for more than five years."

His wood carvings depict women who fell victim to violence, fear or the horror of seeing mutilated bodies.

At the Akad gallery on Abu Nawas street, artist Sattar Luqman has his third recent exhibition running. The more than 30 works reflect his fascination with the ordinary details of life in Baghdad and traditions that time has effaced.

Luqman, 65, a graduate of the capital's school of fine arts and a member of the Plastic Artists commission, held an exhibition in Kuwait back in 1971 well before Saddam's rule led Iraq into seemingly endless war.

Luqman, whose work is part of the Iraq museum collection, was also involved in Iraqi art shows in Dubai in 2004 and 2008.

Qassim Sabti, who owns Hewar gallery, said he warned colleagues against showing their work in recent years for fear of reprisals.

"I warned everybody and I told them that I'm not responsible for anything that may happen to them," he said.

"The situation has changed now. The gallery has started to witness a remarkable spurt of activity in terms of holding exhibitions," added Sabti, deputy head of the artists' commission.

"The latest one is for the artist Alaa al-Hamdani. We are also ready to receive the well-known artist Faruq Hassan on the 10th of the current month."

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