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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Baghdad's 'flourishing' art scene
Ghayath el Jazairi, director of the al Inna' gallery
There are several dozen private galleries in Baghdad
Kim Ghattas

When you think of Iraq today, you think of sanctions, dying children and weapons of mass destruction.

But amidst the misery, the sadness and bitterness of what Iraq has become after 12 years of embargo, there is a peculiar ray of light and hope in the streets of Baghdad - art.

The al Inna' gallery
'Iraqi artists are thought to be the best in the Arab world'

Despite the harsh living conditions, art seems to have flourished since the sanctions hit Iraq in 1990.

Baghdad now boasts several dozen private galleries, up from the two galleries that existed in the city before the embargo along with several state-owned galleries including the Saddam Center for Fine Arts.

Thriving art scene

"Before the embargo, artists painted for the sake of art. They produced maybe three to four paintings a year and often chose not sell them," said Ghayath el Jazairi, director of the al Inaa' gallery which opened in 1994.

"Today, an artist can produce up to 20 paintings a year because he has to support his family. But the quality has not diminished to the expense of quantity.

"On the contrary, it has given artists more experience, they are experimenting with different techniques and styles," Ghayath el Jazairiel added.

In the 1930s when the Iraqi monarchy was put in place, artists were sent to study in Europe.

They are now regarded as the pioneers of Iraqi art.

Before the embargo, artists were provided with material free of charge and no conditions were put on their work.

Iraqi artists are still well known around the world today and are thought to be the best in the Arab world.

"There is great variety in art in Iraq, in every family there is creation and every week there are openings of exhibits. Even today, art is a tradition here," said Francis Dubois, resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme and an aficionado of Iraqi art.

After all, he says, this is the 'cradle of civilizations', once home to the Sumerians, the Assyrians, Abbasids and others.

Difficult conditions

"[Iraqi artists] have no paper, no pens, no colours. They suffer, and still they create and it's really good. Comfort is the enemy of art and creation, it's the difficult living conditions that create art," he said.

Art by Kareem Rissan
Kareem Rissan was inspired by the bombing during the Gulf War

Difficult conditions include a lack of good quality paint or brushes, colours that are rare and lots of recycling and bartering between the artists - a canvas for a red oil paint or a thin brush for a canvas.

But the galleries keep receiving more paintings from new, promising artists.

"We're part of the war and embargo generation, we have our own style I think," says painter Kareem Rissan who is slowly becoming famous outside Iraq.

After graduating in 1984 from the Fine Arts faculty, Mr Rissan was conscripted in the army in 1990, just as the Gulf War was starting.

In his own way, he carefully documented his time on the front. "Like a poet or a writer, I kept a diary, I painted my view of the bombing, of the destruction of oases. I still have the drawings," he said.

Kareem Rissan incorporates natural material in his paintings such as wood and twigs and uses mostly earth colours.


"I used to be inspired by figures from epics, from the Iraqi mythology. Now, it's all symbolic representation of ideas, life, the earth, death," he said.

A lot of Iraqi paintings are quite modern in inspiration, somewhere between abstract and figurative. There are no state propaganda-style paintings in the private galleries.

The colours vary, from very dark browns and blacks to bright blues and reds.

Surprisingly one can even see naked bodies, something unthinkable in neighbouring countries.

Iraq is a relatively secular state, especially compared to countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In Islam, representation of the face or human bodies is forbidden, restraining artists in some ways.

Nobody is happy today, most of my friends have left the country. But with my gallery, I'm trying to make people happy

Wadad Orfali, artist and gallery owner

This unrestricted Iraqi world of art is what artist Wadad Orfali has experienced her whole life.

Married to a diplomat, she lived in Europe and exhibited her paintings around the world. After she returned to Baghdad, she opened her own gallery in 1983.

Today, she still owns a gallery and every day of the week, the Orfali gallery offers a different cultural activity from concerts of classical Arabic music, lectures about art, psychology and screening of old movies.

There is a bit of a faded glory feel to the gallery and even to the distinguished 72-year-old lady who sits in the garden of her gallery, smiling to everybody.

"Nobody is happy today, most of my friends have left the country. But with my gallery, I'm trying to make people happy," says Wadad Orfali, as she waits for her guests who are coming for a concert.

"Art, it's in our blood, my dear. Civilization is in our blood and nothing will change that."

This is the fourth in a series of features from inside Iraq by Kim Ghattas for BBC News Online.

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