Chaos and culture: Re-establishing Iraq's artistic scene

Chaos and culture: Re-establishing Iraq's artistic scene
The conflicts that have rocked Iraq have locked up artistic expression, but a group of pioneers is attempting to break the shackles and restore Baghdad's past glories.
4 min read
30 December, 2014
Art students began to decorate blasts walls in the Iraqi capital this year [AFP]

This has been a tumultuous year for Iraq, and not least the country's cultural landscape.

As in many of its neighbours, art and culture is in crisis in Iraq, suffering from marginalisation and a lack of support. Militia groups have stamped out artistic expression, while religious fundamentalism continues to frown upon art and creativity.

But this does not prevent us from finding hope when a new book is released, an art award is won, or a notable theatrical performance is launched. This year, fortunately, we had some reasons to celebrate.

Artistic achievements

Poet Mohammad Mazloum, who moved to Baghdad for a short while before returning to Damascus - his home for 20 years - released three books this year.

The first was the critical edition of a work by Palestinian poet Tawfiq Sayegh (d. 1971) titled Nazik al-Malaika: Taridat al-Mataha wal Sawt al-Muzdawaj [Nazik al-Malaika: The Exile of the Labyrinth and the Dual Voice].

The second is a study and excerpts of the work of Ahmad al-Safi al-Najafi (d. 1977), an Iraqi poet, titled Ahmad al-Safi al-Najafi: Al-Ghurba al-Kubra li Musafir bila Jiha [Ahmad al-Safi al-Najafi: The Great Exile of a Traveller with no Destination].

The third and perhaps the most important publication is Rubaiyat al-Khayyam - Thalath tarjamat iraqiyya raida [Rubaiyat of Khayyam - Three Major Iraqi Translations], which is a study of the Rubaiyat and includes a free verse translation of the text that is published for the first time.

A sign that Iraqi literature is recovering from years of war and instability was the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for Ahmed Saadawi's novel Frankenstein in Baghdad. Hassan Balasim also became the first Arabic writer to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Iraqi Christ.

Culture moves forward

In the field of art, a number of exhibitions were held in Baghdad, most prominently an exhibition of realistic art featuring the work of 75 artists called Baghdad in the Eyes of its Creatives. There were also a number of personal exhibitions that did not leave a clear mark on the art scene.

However, the real Iraqi art movement was taking place in foreign cities where tens of Iraqi artists live as refugees and exiles. This year's most important exhibition of Iraqi art was held in Amman's Orfali Gallery, showcasing the works of prominent Iraqi artists Faeq Hassan, Shakir Hassan Al Said and Ismail Fatah al-Turk.

It also unveiled 33 previously unseen works by the artists to the public, which reflected their experiences and varied artistic styles.

The next stage of local theatre

In the field of theatre, many performances attempted to rehabilitate the Iraqi stage, however they remained experimental in their attempts. The Iraqi National Theatre showcased Cartoon Dreams by Kadhum Nassar, Cart by Imad Mohammad and Women’s Parliament by Awatif Naeem.

A number of other plays also took to the stage in the theatre, however the most notable play of the year was Coffee Shop by Tahrir al-Asadi.

However, cinema continued to suffer the repercussions of the corruption scandals that accompanied Baghdad being named the Arab Capital of Culture for 2013. The corruption scandals have marred the ministry of culture, and reached the courts and parliamentary transparency committee.

Mohamed al-Daradji, the young director of Son of Babylon, created uproar when he accused Nawfal Abu Raghif, the director-general of the ministry of culture's cinema and theatre department, of blackmail. The director said that Abu Raghif demanded 10 percent of the production company's profits in order to approve the showing of Son of Babylon in Baghdad.

Despite Abu Raghif's protestations of innocence, the higher judicial council issued a warrant for his arrest, and then released him on a bail of 10 million dinars ($8,700).

Irreversible damage?

The scandal, yet to be resolved in court, sheds light on the dire state of Iraq's cultural scene and cinema industry.

Dozens of cinemas across Baghdad have remained closed since the 2003 invasion. Instead of screening films, picture houses have become homes for the homeless, and Baghdad is one of the few capitals in the world that does not have a cinema.

One piece of good news is the return of Makhtutat Publishing that has started creating e-book versions of their publications. The Adnan Library has also started to publish the work of up-and-coming Iraqi poets, while Mesopotamia Publishing has re-released works by researchers such as Falih Abd al-Jabbar and Maytham al-Janabi.

It shows that although Iraq is in crisis, there appears to be some light on the horizon for its once burgeoning arts' scene. Perhaps 2015 will see the last year's achievements built upon to make Baghdad a cultural capital once again.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.