Baghdad rediscovers the masters of modern Iraqi art

Green landscapes, portraits of peasant women, curved sculptures. In Baghdad, fans rediscover the pioneers of modern Iraqi art, thanks to the exhibition of a hundred works, returned and restored two decades after being looted.

Some of these works, by Jawad Salim or Faeq Hassan in particular, had disappeared by 2003 with thousands of pieces looted from Iraqi museums and institutions that were looted and looted in the chaos that followed the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Organized criminal networks were then responsible for selling the stolen pieces outside of Iraq.

Found in Switzerland, the United States, Qatar or even Jordan, sculptures and paintings dating from the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s have been on display since the end of March in a large room at the Ministry of Culture.

“These works are part of the history of modern art in Iraq. They were created by the masters and pioneers of the country’s fine arts,” Fakher Mohamed, a senior ministry official, enthused.

The 2003 invasion brought an abrupt end to the artistic proliferation that characterized prewar Iraq and, in particular, Baghdad, a city of poets, painters, and artists of all persuasions. Saddam Hussein cultivated an image of great patron, while suppressing all political dissent.

The descent into hell of the civil war of the years 2006-2008, then the occupation of part of Iraq by the jihadists of the Islamic State group between 2014 and 2017 gave him the coup de grâce.

But today, thanks to relative stability, Baghdad’s cultural and arts scene is coming back to life, with book fairs, exhibitions and concerts.

This is also demonstrated by the exhibition organized at the Ministry of Culture.

– Damaged tarps –

Among the canvases inspired by realism, surrealism or expressionism, a picturesque scene in resplendent colors shows a ship sailing past the “mudhif”, the traditional reed dwellings typical of the southern marshes.

Other paintings, in dark colors, depict terrified inhabitants surrounded by corpses, fleeing from a burning town. Elsewhere, she is a prostrate woman in a landscape of destruction, kneeling before an arm sticking out from under the stones.

There is also the wooden sculpture of a gazelle with undulating curves. Or even “the maternal statue” of Jawad Salim, which represents a full-length woman, with a slender neck and raised arms.

The work, which is probably worth several hundred thousand euros, was found one day in Baghdad’s second-hand goods district by a seller who did not know its value, says sculptor Taha Wahib, who paid to acquire it. . 200 dollars.

Paintings and sculptures were stolen from the “Saddam Center for the Arts”, one of Baghdad’s prestigious cultural institutions. Sometimes looters had cut the canvases with a cutter to make it easier to transport them without the frame.

“Some pieces were damaged during the events of 2003. Or they were stored in poor conditions for many years. They were restored in record time,” Mohamed told AFP.

– ‘Invaluable works’ –

Other works are still waiting for a second life, adds the manager, who intends to open other exhibition rooms to show the entire collection.

“Museums must be open to the public, these works must not be imprisoned in warehouses,” he insists.

Of the 7,000 pieces stolen in 2003, some 2,300 were returned to Iraq, confides the artist Lamiaa al-Jawari, curator of the exhibition who hopes one day “to show visitors all this artistic heritage.”

“Invaluable Works”, is moved by who joined in 2004 a committee formed by the initiative of artists to find these patrimonial treasures.

“Some were recovered through official channels: the Swiss Embassy helped, for example. Or through private individuals,” he says.

The last restitutions were made in 2021 and the authorities are coordinating their actions with Interpol to find the missing works, he said.

Ali Al-Najar, an 82-year-old artist who has lived in Sweden for two decades, is on vacation in his home country. He salutes the scenery of the exhibition and highlights its importance: because “the pioneers are at the origin of everything. If we forget them, we lose the base”.


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