The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Iraq artists get clean canvas, but fear new threats

Baghdad, April 22: Soon after more than 100 of Baghdad’s artists gathered yesterday at Hawar Art Gallery, its avuncular, irreverent owner, Qassam Alsabti, lugged out a sprawling white board. He propped it against the wall, and his helpers carted in cut-off plastic bottles topped with paint. In a break with the past — and all its weary cliches and slogans — nothing was scripted.

Get to work, he motioned with a smile.

And so they did. In green, black, red and yellow, the pent-up emotions of three decades of Saddam Hussein’s rule spread across a public canvas. “Freedom first,” one artist wrote. “For the sake of democracy,” wrote another. There was bitterness at the past: “Saddam fell, Iraq did not.” There was anger at US forces: “Long live the Iraqi people and down with America.”

And in one corner, painted in red, was a portrait of a slain woman sprawled across a man’s lap, a victim of war painted by Karim Khalil.

“We gave a lot of martyrs,” he said, bitter at the bloodshed. “It was like an earthquake, and we’re only beginning to see its impact.” For the artists like Khalil gathered in the gallery of stucco walls and stone floors, a new era had dawned in Baghdad. But for a community that prides itself on understanding the soul of the city, no one seemed to know what would come next.

Gone were the subtle battles with censorship that gave rise to an almost imperceptible language of dissent over 35 years. Gone, too, was the modicum of privilege the artists enjoyed under Saddam if they chose not to defy his rule. Ahead was hope for a newfound freedom of expression and an end to the isolation that made proud Baghdad a backwater. Some eagerly predicted a renaissance that evoked the glory of Baghdad’s lusty poets and original thinkers.

There were also ominous signs for this group. Some spoke of the chaos and looting that wr ecked the city, most painfully its national museum and library. Others questioned US intentions. Many worried about resurgent religious forces and their ability to end the secularism that gave Baghdad an artistic liberty that has gradually receded in most Arab cities.

“We are starting from the beginning,” said Alsabti, his long grey hair swept back.

Over the weekend, Alsabti sent out word to his friends and colleagues to gather at his gallery, an island ofcalm in turbulent Baghdad. A nationalist and iconoclast, he had an overtly political intention in mind — to form an artists’ union and begin a weekly newspaper that would take its name from his gallery — “Hawar,” or “Dialogue.” But in a city with no working telephone lines, no electricity and precious few means to communicate, it was an excuse to see friends and colleagues after weeks of war.

“Thank God for your safety,” one after another said as they shook hands.

Alsabti was a gregarious host. “We’ve been looking for you for a week,” he said, pinching the cheek of one friend. “What are your losses'” he asked another. To more than a few, he divulged a ribald joke that prompted peals of laughter.

“If I had a telephone, believe me, 1,000 people would have come,” he said.

But his cheer bore little resemblance to his mood. Like others, he had the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities on his mind and the destruction of its trove of Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts. Many blamed US forces for not intervening to stop the demolition — deepening their scepticism of the American presence.

“When I see an occupier, am I happy' Looting the museum, burning the National Library, robbing the Saddam Centre for Arts' The great America is not able to exert control over gangs of thieves'” Alsabti asked.

Alsabti was no enemy of Saddam’s rule. He said he stayed in the Baath Party until 1994, when he left by shouting vulgarities at the local boss. He was small fry, he said, and escaped trouble. Like some others artists, he recalled the government’s patronage — state-sponsored exhibitions and subsidised supplies in the heady 1970s. While few Iraqis could afford a $150 exit tax, artists were exempted from the charge when they travelled abroad. They were coddled and, in turn, created one of the Arab world’s most vibrant art scenes.

Others with Alsabti were less sentimental about Saddam’s rule, but no less angry about the US presence and the war that preceded it.

“It’s the Mongol invasion all over again,” Khalil said, sitting with his friends, Salman Radi, a sculptor, and Saad Hadi, an art critic.

“The first thing I want is for the Americans to leave,” he said. “They came to liberate us, we thank them, now they should go.”

Already, he said, he was hard at work on a new sculpture of marble. It portrayed a man — unsubtly representing the US — attacking a woman symbolising Iraq. He hoped to have the three-foot-high piece finished by week’s end.

“There may be gratitude for overthrowing Saddam, but the fall of Saddam is not the end of the story,” Hadi said, shaking his head in agreement. “The chains we had were of iron. Now they may be of silk.”

Radi, a 40-year-old who started smoking when the war began, disagreed.

“All the Iraqi people, without exception, were anxious and eager for the Americans to arrive,” he said. “Even if the devil came, they would shake hands with him to get rid of Saddam Hussein.”

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