July 25, 2004

Art Imitates Iraqi Life in All Its Chaos and Misery


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 19 — Adnan Abbas spends his days bent over an easel, turning bloodshed into art.

Twenty-seven years old, surrounded by violence and gloom, he spreads a newspaper at his feet, dips his brush in linseed oil and tries to paint what it feels like to be an Iraqi.

His whirls of color express the mayhem of a suicide bomb, the agony of a mother who has unearthed the dusty bones of her son, the confusion of his country today.

"Some people tell me, `Hasn't Iraq had enough war, enough bad things? Why not make something bright?' " Mr. Abbas said. "But it's not that easy. Misery is part of humanity, especially here. How can anyone miss that?"

The war in Iraq has been especially disillusioning for young Iraqi artists, many of whom believed the American promises of freedom. As the old order fell, they sat in their cracked-window studios and at paint-splattered easels and dreamed of an Iraqi renaissance.

They dream still.

At the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts, which Mr. Abbas attends, the school play last semester explored the humiliation of the American occupation and began with the sounds of helicopters and machine guns. In the academy's dance studio, taut young men leap and prance and wilt on stage in a dance called "The Slow Death." In sculpturing rooms that smell of fresh, wet clay, students mold ceramic towers draped in chains.

The amount of violence has stunned these artists. It has robbed them of business, killed classmates and made it difficult to work and live.

But the war has also given them a lot to think about. Artists often have found fresh, dramatic material in conflict, and Iraqi artists , young and old, are no exception.

This spring, Fadel Hayat, a 58-year-old Kurdish painter, displayed two canvases, one he painted before the American invasion and one after. The first is a sunny scene of water and trees, the second a tableau of black and red squares. He is among many mature artists who say that all the recent death and destruction have turned them inward, seeking to make sense of a world that does not make sense.

"Of all the troubles we've been through, this period has been the hardest," Mr. Hayat said. "In our own country, we now feel like strangers."

Mr. Abbas has spongy black curls that he wipes away from his forehead when he works. He looks at people the same way he looks deep into his canvas. He comes from a traditional Shiite family of six brothers and five sisters, all working class — carpenters, drivers, auto parts dealers. When he recently visited his family in Karbala, a Shiite pilgrimage site south of Baghdad, his father, wearing a long white beard and a black tunic, hugged Mr. Abbas so tightly that he nearly crushed the sunglasses floating on top of his mop of hair.

"I love you," said his father, Abdul, who used to paint boats and Arab horsemen and once dreamed of being an artist, too. "Your artwork is our prize."

Mr. Abbas, a fourth-year student at the arts college, is one of the leaders of the New Academy, an artists group that mixes modern Expressionism with classical flavors.

"See this nose?" Mr. Abbas said, pointing to a woman's face in one of his paintings. "It's a long nose. It's a Sumerian nose. It's our nose."

In a traditional art education, students are exposed to nature and taught how to draw inspiration from the trees and the clouds and the living world around them. But these days in Baghdad, that is not easy. Miles of razor wire have spread across the city's buildings and sidewalks faster than kudzu. Concrete blast walls cast tall shadows over many neighborhoods. Most days, the only clouds to paint are clouds of smoke.

This spring, half a dozen young men and women from the New Academy took a field trip to a little village along the Tigris River where they had been before to paint landscapes.

They spilled out of the taxis that carried them there, scampered down to the riverbanks and scanned the reeds and water and flat blue skies.

"Kadem! Talaee! Look at this!" Mr. Abbas hollered to his friends. "Nature."

The Tigris glowed in front of them. The wind stirred the palms. Barefoot boys emerged from huts along the river with cool glasses of yogurt. The villagers huddled around them as they worked.

"It's beautiful," one boy said to Mr. Abbas as he painted a scene of two grazing goats. "More beautiful than life."

Mr. Abbas smiled. But as he layered paint on the goats' backs, two American Apache helicopters roared over the horizon. They swooped low, as they always do, and their rotors chopped the tranquillity to pieces.

"I am sick of this," Mr. Abbas said.

In mid-April, the Ministry of Culture tried to put on a big show to celebrate the first anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein. The problem was, not many artists felt like celebrating.

"We don't consider this moment the end of Saddam," said Juma Shumran, manager of Baghdad's Hewar Gallery. "We consider it the beginning of the occupation."

Taha Wahaib, a 40-year-old sculptor who casts quirky bronzes, declined to participate.

"We've spent so long with the government telling us what to do," he said. "Now they're doing it again."

But Mr. Abbas wanted to do a piece. In Karbala last year, he watched neighbors excavate a mass grave. He saw one woman crumple to the dirt after she discovered the skeleton of her son.

So he painted "The Story of Time," the story of his time. Half the canvas is muted, dominated by a woman clutching a skeleton. The other half is bright, with white birds flying out of a pot. Unlike his other big work, the "Call to Humanity," a bleak sculpture he made this winter after witnessing a car bombing, "The Story of Time" is only half bleak.

"I wanted to show the exact moment we're at, between darkness and light," Mr. Abbas said.

The season that had passed was making a difference. Mr. Abbas was stepping away from pure darkness. Hope was trickling back.

But the anniversary show coincided with the one of the most violent periods this past year, when uprisings were erupting across Iraq. The arts college shut down for week. So did most of Baghdad. Only a handful of people saw Mr. Abbas's painting.

His business has been both helped and hurt by the war. Mr. Abbas used to sell pictures to tourists. But the war killed off the tourist trade. Now he makes money by painting portraits of American soldiers.

It is an interesting niche trade that has cropped up, with Iraqi translators who work for the Army bringing photos from American military bases either to art galleries or directly to artists. The going rate in Baghdad is $50 a head. Mr. Abbas said his first portrait was an American general named Jim.

But as the violence and chaos grind on, some artists are finding it harder to work. Like many other Iraqis, they are becoming numb to the killing.

Mr. Hayat, the Kurdish painter who was experimenting with brooding canvases this spring, now says he has nothing to paint. In his living room, crammed with plastic flowers and family photos, he has hung an empty picture frame on the wall — for inspiration.

"I was hoping by staring at it I would know what to paint," he said.

So far, it has not worked.

Mr. Abbas said he had withdrawn a bit, too. He is painting classic Arab scenes again that are aesthetically accomplished but emotionally neutral.

"I'm hoping to get $500 for this one," he said, pointing to a six-foot-long canvas of Arab horn blowers.

This month, though, Mr. Abbas was excited about submitting a piece to a poster exhibition titled "Democracy and Sovereignty." Many entries are political satire, like the poster made by Saad Abdul Ali, a 40-year-old graphic artist, that said "Regain Authority" with a bar code stamped on it.

"This is what Iraq has become," Mr. Ali explained. "Goods to be sold."

Mr. Abbas's poster is a vibrantly colored scene, more reminiscent of his prewar palate. Smiling women in bright blues and reds pull down a white cloth in front of them.

"It shows freedom," he said.

But a little pain is still there. Old women in black shrouds huddle in the background, clinging to the edges of his canvas, going, but not gone, not yet.