The study of illustration, painting, sculpture and similar fields is at risk in Iraq, reflecting the nation’s wavering commitment to the arts in general.
As the cradle of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, the country has an ancient tradition of art. That continued during the Islamic Medieval Ages, then dipped after the Mongol invasion, in 1258. But in the modern era, many globally known sculptors and many world-renowned architectural designers emerged from Iraq.
After the looting of Baghdad Museum and other institutions in 2003, Iraqi art started a severe downwards slide. That situation was exacerbated by bad security, the emigration of the art-producing and consuming middle class and the rise of a religiously conservative view of art. The decline of art has led many artists and art teachers to flee the country.
Art education is a “cornerstone in building a modern nation,” argues Zainab Adbulkarim, an Iraqi artist now based in Norway. “It might [even] play an important role in restoring peace in Iraq.” Students who learn to value beauty and life, she says, turn away from hostility and anger.
Occasional rumors pop up—the latest one hit the press in December—that all of Iraq’s publicly supported fine arts institutes will be closed. “We hear of this every year,” said Nibras Hashim, a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, which was established in 1936. “But we will not accept it.”
At the Institute of Fine Arts, said Ahmed Haider, an Iraqi artist and professor, “there are no signs of development.” Those who care about the arts in Iraq are also concerned about the College of Fine Arts at Baghdad, which was established in 1958 and is now linked to University of Baghdad.
“The problem did not start abruptly,” said Adnan Al-Abdali, an Iraqi artist and the head of education and arts department at the Ministry of Youth. He traces it back to the late 1980s, when a generation of Iraqi students went into Iraqi graduate schools and emerged as professors, replacing an earlier generation that had been educated more internationally.
The new generation of professors focuses on theory, aesthetic philosophy and art history instead of the creation of art, said Saad Abid Zaid, an artist living Baghdad.
International economic sanctions imposed during Saddam Hussein’s rule also starved art and artists. “Iraqi art professors and students were cut off from the world,” said Al-Abdali. Iraqi artists could not go to conferences, workshops or gallery openings outside the country, and they had few visitors. “Artistic participation became personal and sporadic,” said Al-Abdali.
Art materials became expensive under the sanctions if they were available at all, a situation that students still complain about.“Everything is left to us, we should buy it all by ourselves,” said Sarah Abdulmun’im, at the College of Fine Arts. “This is exhausting to students as they have no income and their time is dedicated entirely to studying.”
Since 2003, poor security has meant that students rush home after classes and can’t stay at their institutes working on artistic projects. Students are wary of traveling after dark and risk violating the curfews that are occasionally imposed.
“After 2003, students were not able to reach the faculty on time, or to stay for extra time in the faculty,” said Ahmed Fadaam, an Iraqi and an assistant professor of sculpture at the Elon University School of Communications, in the United States. “Art needs time, to prepare the work and finish it.”
“The hours dedicated to practical sessions have decreased from six to eight hours before 2003 to two to four hours now,” said Hashim, at the Institute of Fine Arts. “We usually need one and half an hours to prepare the models or still life themes and further time to relax and concentrate before starting to work.”
Many artists and art scholars have emigrated, retired or passed away, professors say. Older professors were “open to the outer world,” said Abdulrahman Luay Majid, a student in the design department at the College of Fine Arts. “They were transferring their global knowledge and inherited experience to us.”
Some students seek out the arts for the wrong reasons. They are afraid of the difficulties of studying science or they have to study art simply because they get low grades on the high school final examination, a situation similar to that in many other Arab countries.
“The admission is chaotic,” said Najim Haider, an Iraqi sculptor and professor at the College of Fine Arts . Ten percent of seats are reserved for graduates of fine arts institutes [at the secondary school level]. Five percent of seats are reserved for students who are admitted because their work is judged to demonstrate talent. The other 85 percent of seats are reserved for students who are admitted solely because of their scores on the final examination.
“Four years ago, the admission became more based on grades,” said Nibras Hashim, professor at an art institute in Baghdad that has excluded female students beginning in 1996, except for its theater department. The situation, she said, “left our institute students depressed. Many of our students joined the army to support their families.”
In any case, enrollment at the Fine Arts Institute is down. “New art professors earn ‘less than soldiers,’” says Haidar, at the College of Fine Arts. Teaching and practicing art, he said, could disappear as a profession.
Graduates who hope to become working artists must contend with an ever-shrinking audience. “The absence of a cultivated class is the first and most important cause,” said Ahmed Haider, a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, in Baghdad. “There is an obvious decrease in the education of the society from the ruling class downwards.”
In December 2010, Khodhair Al-Khuza’i, the former minister of education ordered sculpture that was showcased inside the Institute of Fine Art at Baghdad to be removed and destroyed, considering the representations of human figures a “violation of religion.” Students were themselves forced to destroy the statues, including four by famous Iraqi sculptors, such as Ahmed Al-Bahrany and Ali Al-Bayyati, were smashed.
“The social and religious circumstances are the most important new obstacles,” said Al-Abdali.
Below are some resources with more information on Iraqi art and artists:
IraqiArt.com is a specialized website in Arabic that seeks to introduce people to many kinds of art and artists.
The Modern Art Iraq Archive is a bilingual resource “to trace, share, and enable community enrichment of the modern art heritage of Iraq.”
Iraqi Artists Association is a nonprofit group that promotes Iraqi artists of all kinds and all over the world.
The Art History Archive has a section devoted to Iraqi artists.
Art in Iraq Today features biographies and images for a variety of Iraqi artists, many working in exile.