It is argued that the celebrated Arab protest movements have changed the path of visual arts in the region. Headlines predict that art inspired by the uprisings will be freer and more critical. Artists have partaken in the displays of mass dissent, demonstrating in the streets and protesting further through their work. Inflated claims notwithstanding, and despite unfulfilled hopes, the protests have indeed directed welcome attention to art scenes in Arab cities. Change, many still hope, is finally possible.

The world’s desire for Middle Eastern democracy, however, seems to have skipped Iraq. Several attempts by Iraqi youth to join the regional ferment were smothered by fears of further sectarian unrest and violently suppressed by security forces. World media ignored the voices from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Even the Facebook pages “Iraqi Revolution” and “Support Iraqi Protesters in the Great Iraqi Revolution” gathered nowhere near as many followers as their Egyptian counterparts.

Contemporary Iraqi art has thus remained outside the discourse of hope and aspiration in the Arab world. Images of an Iraq plagued by war and poverty, a place in need of “liberation,” are embedded in the world psyche and have yet to be contested. The systematic destruction of identity and memory — indeed of the modern Iraqi state — that followed the 2003 US invasion has resulted in various historiographical voids. [1] Meanwhile, in the absence of nation or state building, the erasure of cultural memory intensifies and further disenfranchises and marginalizes the Iraqi tradition of art making. The transformation of Iraqi art tradition from riches to rags over two decades is a unique case in the Middle East. Equally, the dismantling of cultural institutions, the ambiguous role of the Ministry of Culture and tensions between traditionally secular art practitioners and a government promoting a stronger role for religion anticipated what seems to be taking place in Egypt now.

Invention of a Tradition

In 1955, an observer wrote: “There is plenty of modern art in Baghdad. The visual arts of painting and sculpture are booming. There are two societies of painters. The Institute of Fine Arts runs evening classes for government officials. Patronage is generous and undiscriminating. An exhibition of two names and fine art students can net 200 dinars in sales, with canvases priced up to 50 dinars.” [2]

The above description captures the cultural mood in Baghdad and the popular status of art for most of the twentieth century. Iraqi artists were an active intellectual and creative force. In the first half of the century, Iraqi visual production presented a potent site of resistance to the British mandate and the Iraqi monarchy. Following the 1958 revolution, artists published an open letter titled, “Artists’ Memorandum to the Respected Leader ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim,” prime minister of republican Iraq from 1958 to 1963, in the cultural monthly al-Thaqafa al-Jadida. [3] In their letter, they reaffirmed the role of art and the artist, who “has faithfully served his people’s cause, captured the calamity of the people’s agonizing condition and expressed its inner revolution…and is very careful today to be in the lead of active contributions to building a better future.” The letter outlined the status of art education prior to the revolution and listed recommendations for improving its infrastructure around the country. At that point, the artists recommended establishing a high committee connected directly to the Council of Ministers “to supervise and direct the art movement.” They effectively offered their services to the goals of the revolution and aligned themselves with the Republic of Iraq. A new relationship between state and artists was formed.

Moreover, Iraqi artists took on the task of developing the taste of the Iraqi public and its appreciation for modern art experiments. Artists’ groups were particularly vigorous in popularizing modern art and promoting a middle-class culture of collecting, to the point that it became a sign of nationalism and cultural prestige. Iraqi modern art was held to be the most progressive in the region, which enhanced the pride the art pieces’ owners felt and increased government support for the arts. Iraqi visual artists enjoyed a privileged position in society and a degree of protection from the severe censorship imposed on other forms of expression, particularly under Saddam Hussein.

The appreciation of modern art culminated in 1962 in the establishment of the National Museum of Modern Art, a project that had been initiated by the monarchy. [4] Known locally as the Gulbenkian Museum, due to its funding by the Gulbenkian Foundation, the facility was an expression of both citizenship and modern cosmopolitanism and functioned as the symbol and center of facilitating state patronage.

While the structure of cooperation between artists and the state persisted by default, the enthusiasm of Iraqi artists faded with the increasing authoritarianism of the government. By the 1980s, the ruling Baath Party dominated all major cultural centers and fine arts schools, and tolerated only one art association, the Official Iraqi Artists’ Society. The limitless aspirations of earlier generations sputtered and a more propagandistic art that favored the socialist realist style began to dominate. In 1986, the Saddam Center for the Arts was inaugurated specifically to glorify Saddam Hussein as a patron of culture and art. [5] Nevertheless, it would be absurd to label all works of art produced under Saddam, even those he personally commissioned, as “Baathist art.” The Iraqi art community always distinguished between what it perceived as significant, “museum-worthy” art and mere byproducts of Saddam’s policies.

Years of Deprivation

By far the most debilitating blow to Iraqi art was the comprehensive economic sanctions imposed on the country from 1990 to 2003. Hardship and dearth of resources forced many artists to relocate to neighboring countries. Art institutions lost many of their faculty due to low pay. Materials for traditional arts, like painting and sculpture, were scarce, while technology-based programs, like photography, video and new media, were suspended.

Art material was a luxury, and derivative substitutes were sought. Exhibitions continued during the first years of sanctions but support deteriorated with time. State patronage dwindled to nothing, with severe ramifications for artistic production and livelihood. For the first time since the formation of modern art in Iraq, Iraqi artists were without a source of sustenance. At the same time, the increasing weakness and ineffectiveness of the Ministry of Culture and Information allowed for certain freedoms. A small private art market was instituted as an alternative. The traditional Iraqi art market selling to the middle class, however, disappeared. These galleries sold cheaply to UN personnel and other foreigners. Others sold to the exiled Iraqi communities, first by way of traveling artists and later the new galleries launched in Amman that featured mostly Iraqi artists. Sales of Iraqi art in Amman raised prices and eventually fostered a lucrative market. Demand for the work of certain Iraqi artists generated a market for forgeries, which are still making mischief around the word, in the absence of controls or authentication.

Change of material necessarily brought a change in format and aesthetics. For example, dafatir (artist books) became a special and, for many artists, preferred format. Visual artists could use any available material and work in small, mobile sizes. Karim Risan’s dafatir are important eyewitness documentation of the sanctions decade and the invasion that followed.

In general, however, Iraqi art in the 1990-2003 period exhibited a strong focus on the process of rediscovering and representing Iraqi history, undoubtedly an unconscious attempt to cleanse and salvage what Saddam was sullying on so many levels. A comparative study of the experiments of the mid-twentieth century and those under the sanctions would yield various parallels. Nevertheless, this generation of Iraqi artists accused the previous ones of impurity of vision in evaluating the “Iraqiness” within. They saw themselves as responsible for clarifying the notion of Iraqi identity. A number of artists embraced their isolation as a means of reexploring ancient Mesopotamian heritage, in an effort to reconcile the contradictions they felt between a glorious past and a ruinous present. Equally, they believed that good art is the art of contestation and that resistance to Saddam consisted of not painting him. They focused on aesthetics and formal developments. Many of the 1980s generation explored texturality of the surface through mixed media, and presented a fusion between painting and sculpture, in a style the Iraqi artist Hana Malallah dubbed the “aesthetics of ruination,” a deconstructive methodology that involved torching and tearing the surface, and in effect aestheticized the artists’ trauma.

Current Realities

Waking up to the end of Saddam’s rule was a multifaceted moment for Iraqi artists, particularly those inside Iraq. On the one hand, the sanctions were lifted. On the other hand, the artists instantly lost their privileged position, which had endured, albeit sans state patronage, for most of the 1990s. They suddenly found themselves detached from their own history — an in-between generation as disconnected from the before as from the after, caught between the glory of the past and the future that seems to have passed them over. Intense interest descended on Iraqi art, in search of an explicit art of dissent or resistance to Saddam that would vindicate the invasion and occupation. It yielded few results. Baffled by the pronounced numbness of the established Iraqi artists, a number of younger artists in the diaspora, who were comfortable with being global and transnational, stepped up to the challenge. Mostly educated in Europe and the US, they spoke the global art language and understood the new media. Some have even found their way into the global art market.

Many artists lament the state of art in Iraq today and would even say that things were better under the sanctions, when they at least understood their place in Iraqi art history. On the surface, given the thoroughgoing destruction of 2003, it may appear they are right. In reality, however, the isolation of the sanctions crippled the arts’ development, causing a rupture so dramatic to the point that artists lost their place in the country’s tradition. While Iraqi artists had not stopped imagining or creating, they were in a sense suspended outside time, as they were shocked to discover the morning after the invasion. Introspection was of limited value. Many fled the increasingly stifling environment of Iraq, and were stunned to see that the world had moved beyond modernist paradigms, which they regarded as the ultimate aesthetic progress, and toward post-modern experimentation.

Malallah believes that the Baghdad-based artists of her generation had an attitude that “wavered between that of inferiority” — a consciousness of being cut off from the cultural dialogue among those in exile — “and that of superiority,” that is, pride in having made the decision to stay and defend their tradition. [6] Nevertheless, shortly after the invasion, the feelings of pride began to dissipate, though they remain a psychological barrier for many. Most felt an urgent need to leave amid the country’s downward spiral into civil war, including, in 2007, Malallah herself, out of fear for her life.

A new dichotomy between insider and outsider artists took shape. The empathy among Iraqi artists, regardless of geographical location, under sanctions was diminished and replaced by denial and a desire to forget. This shift resulted in a very abstruse relationship among artists and with their art historical past. No longer viewed as the avant-garde of the region, Iraqi art is now considered outdated, by young diaspora Iraqi artists as by others. A need for new contexts signaled a radical shift in the relationship between diaspora and homeland. During the sporadic migrations of Iraqi artists in the 1980s and 1990s, the exilic eyes remained oriented toward Iraq.

Particularly for Iraqi artists who wound up in Amman and Doha in those decades, the relocation was to have been temporary. Several accepted teaching posts at Jordanian universities and schools. Others followed with the hope of financial opportunities. Their presence in Amman helped fuel interest in and support for the arts, in the form of the new galleries. In Doha, a select number of artists — the renowned Isma‘il Fattah, Dia’ ‘Azzawi, Shakir Hasan al-Sa‘id — were offered a sort of informal short- or long-term art residency, replete with space, materials and promises of purchase for the resulting work. The new patronage, however, created its own disconnect for the artists. As Amman and Doha completely lacked an art tradition, Iraqi artists there remained disengaged from global developments. Both cities were like satellite extensions of the artists’ lives in Iraq.

The situation changed drastically after 2003. Migration and permanent relocation became a goal for many Iraqis who had lost hope for better days in Iraq. Among those already outside, the expectation of return likewise vanished. A new class of Iraqi artists was resettled to host countries through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of the well-established Iraqi artists, the role models and teachers of the younger generations, are now scattered around the world. Despite marginal successes, they remain disenfranchised from today’s global art structure. Iraqi art became fragmented, as it lost its center of production. The Iraqi Ministry of Culture is highly corrupt and ineffective; the contemporary art world is dominated by the dictates of the market; and Iraqi artists are excluded from any sphere of influence.

The loss of identity became particularly significant as the world’s perception of what constitutes Iraqi art shifted. Prior to the 2003 invasion, in one capacity or another, all artists inside Iraq dealt with the state and would periodically be chosen to represent the country at international exhibitions. Their selection did not necessarily carry political meaning. At international occasions requiring the presence of nationals as representative of Iraqi art, these official designates were so recognized — signifying that the world defined Iraqi art as art made inside Iraq. Artists of the Iraqi diaspora were thus continuously challenged to belong.

In the post-2003 era, the polarity was reversed. On the global level of biennales, art fairs and museum exhibitions, Iraqi artists of the diaspora became the official representatives of Iraqi art. The celebrated Iraqi pavilion, “Wounded Water,” at the Fifty-Fourth Venice Biennale in June 2011 was announced by the curator, the American Mary Angela Schroth, as Iraq’s return to the contemporary global art scene. It is thus of significance that the “two generations of Iraqi artists” it featured are six artists who have lived outside Iraq for at least the last two decades. The remarks of the Iraqi ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome, Hasan Janabi, were particularly telling. He said, “Getting Iraqi artists [who live in Iraq] is not an easy job. It could be tedious and possibly create friction. Instead, they sought out artists living on the outside who could truly reflect what constitutes an Iraqi artist.” [7]

Janabi’s comments contain a great degree of truth. It is certainly much easier to reach and facilitate the participation of Iraqi artists in the diaspora, but at the cost of reinforcing the exclusion and alienation of those inside Iraq. In Iraq, there is a pronounced lack of connection between culture and administration and a particular neglect for the creative cadre. New forms of censorship, derived from conservative interpretations of religion, were instituted after 2003. Artists were threatened and some killed, which helped to drive more of them out of Iraq. Exhibitions organized by the Ministry of Culture play a politically correct game of buttressing the status quo.

Baghdad has been selected as the “capital of Arab culture” in 2013. Nevertheless, and despite the large sums allocated, there have been no efforts inside Iraq to address cultural destruction in the country. There is no discussion about updating cultural policy or reviving cultural institutions. Meanwhile, the collection of the National Museum of Modern Art is still at large. The museum itself has not been opened to the public nor have the approximately 1,700 retrieved works been restored or conserved. There are reports of plans to reopen the Gulbenkian for the 2013 celebrations, but the museum is located in a high-risk area and the few works of Iraqi modernist masters that are left would not be secure. Most important, there is still no official Iraqi entity in charge of stopping the trafficking of looted works from the museum and other official and private collections. (The various private efforts to retrieve such works and identify forgeries, such as the Modern Art Iraq Archive, are modest and receive scant official support.) The lucrative regional trade in modernist art that developed in the 1990s turned global after 2003 and most of the key modernist works were spirited away. Moreover, the suddenly much higher (if still low by Euro-American standards) valuation of these works amplified the forgery problem.

New Enterprises

Immediately following the invasion, there were a number of US- and Europe-based initiatives focusing on art as a way of bridging the cultural divide. Most of these initiatives operate as NGOs. NGOs, in fact, seem to be the most fashionable operating system in Iraq today. They fill the void left by the Ministry of Culture and operate with the blessing of the Iraqi government.

The Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project is a prominent NGO that has organized several art exhibitions. Its website explains: “Building on the transformative power of art, this project helps to personalize relationships with Iraqis. It bridges American communities with Iraqi artists. Some of the art carries messages that invite the children of Abraham — Christians, Jews and Muslims — to recognize their common roots.” Its agenda is not about visual art but engages art as a means to another end, which necessarily marginalizes the tradition of modern Iraqi art and ideologically reinforces the dominant rhetoric of conflict.

Another trend has been started by diaspora Iraqi youth. Two notable NGOs are Sada (Echo) and the Young Mesopotamians, both started by young Iraqi women interested in providing aid to contemporary Iraqi artists inside Iraq. They share the objective of providing opportunities for education, resources and exhibitions, and Sada has already offered one workshop in Baghdad in 2011, as well as adjunct programming at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Registered as not-for-profit organizations, Sada and the Young Mesopotamians operate on charity and have solicited aid from artists who donate works to auction. In October 2011, Christie’s organized an auction for the benefit of Sada, with works donated by the artists Jananne Al-Ani, Ahmed Alsoudani, Rheim Alkadhi, Wafaa Bilal, Azad Nanakeli and Walid Siti.

In 2003, during the brief misrule of the Coalition Provisional Authority, there was a rumor that Iraqi cultural institutions, including major museums, would be privatized along with state-owned factories. While no such move was made, the Ministry of Culture did not resume its previous role. The notion of outsourcing culture to NGOs, however, is absurd. The lack of government concern was highlighted in a January meeting organized by the US Embassy in Baghdad and the Ministry of Culture, hosting 50 representatives from various NGOs for discussions about “volunteerism, the nuts and bolts of running an NGO in Iraq, fundraising and grant writing, as well as an insider’s view of the Embassy’s cultural program priorities.”

The Gulf Art Scene

The expansion of auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonham’s into the Arab world via the Gulf states, and the new global attention to art tourism through those states’ mega-projects, has brought long-awaited recognition to Middle Eastern art. Between Sharja, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, there seems to be an art fair, biennale or exhibition kicking off at all times of the year.

The Gulf initiatives embody the extreme contradictions in the region, while introducing novel possibilities at the same time. Amidst the post-modern obsession with difference and the global lapse into identity politics, there is a pronounced Arab identity emerging in the Gulf region. Nevertheless, the various models in the Gulf negotiate a search for identity through asserting a new construction of an “old” one, within a shifting discourse of culture making and culture tourism and within the global city model, further complicating the notion of culture as a site of contestation. The new spaces of culture produced by the global city discourse seem mostly to be sites of conformity to an allegedly all-encompassing narrative of equality and prosperity. The multitude of galleries opening in Dubai seems to cater mostly to non-locals and flourish only during global events, particularly in the absence of local or regional collecting practices. Most important, this process has commodified contemporary art from the Middle East without accepting its history of modernity.

The commodification of contemporary Arab art through the art market created a demand for certain styles and media, that once again preferred products by transnational Arab artists and consequently rejected art made inside Iraq. Art from Iraq is thus still absent from Dubai galleries, art fairs and mega-exhibitions. Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, has tried to institutionalize modern Arab art, but the contemporary remains more exciting on the global level. The collection of Iraqi art at Mathaf is the most comprehensive in the world today, but its value is not yet appreciated. Ironically, at the moment that the international art community engaged with art from the region at full speed, producing art specialists, consultants and consumers, and causing production to multiply, local support for art diminished. What is left is the memories of the 1960s-1980s as a golden age.

Alternatively, a new venue of exhibiting (and collecting) Iraqi art and culture has developed on the Internet. As more Iraqis gain access to online technology, collections of modern art have appeared on YouTube and Facebook, along with rare photographs of modernist artists at their studios, art institutions and exhibition openings. Intense nostalgia for the monarchy, and the 1950s in particular, has brought a flood of digital paraphernalia that have rendered the ether a repository of Iraqi collective memory. For Iraqis in the diaspora, Iraqi art has acquired a new national significance as a site of resisting the rhetoric of separation and fragmentation, magnified by the scale of the loss, and symbolized by the destruction and looting of the Saddam Center for the Arts.

What’s Next?

“My gallery, like Baghdad, is under siege,” said Qasim Sabti in 2008. [8] Sabti, owner of the Hiwar Gallery in Baghdad, is a rare artist who tried to find hope in all periods. In 2003, his gallery was a place of optimism and a salon for Baghdadi artists and intellectuals. A student of the Iraqi Pioneers, the great modernist masters of the 1940s and 1950s, today he persists in efforts to revive interest in the arts, the only form of resistance available to him.

Modern Iraqi art and its institutions hover somewhere between being good ideas and happy memories. Contemporary Iraqi artists have no home or place in the Iraqi art tradition. They are overburdened by the legacy of a glorious past, centered on modernist aesthetics and national style, against which they are continuously measured and to the continuity of which Iraqi artists of older generations hold them accountable. Concurrently, they have to negotiate the issues of their diaspora experience, politics and war, which they are expected to address in their work, generally privileging content over aesthetics and style. Both of these sets of demands upon Iraqi artists restrict their freedom of expression and thus dictate the direction of Iraqi art and shifts in the attendant discourse. Meanwhile, Iraq’s modern heritage remains strategically neglected and ignored within a larger policy of denationalizing Iraqi history.


[1] See Nada Shabout, “The ‘Free’ Art of Occupation: Images for a ‘New’ Iraq,” Arab Studies Quarterly 28/3-4 (Summer-Fall 2006).
[2] Alan Neame, “Art in Baghdad,” al-Kulliyah 30/5 (May 1955).
[3] Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida (December 1958).
[4] See Nada Shabout, “Preservation of Iraqi Modern Heritage in the Aftermath of the US Invasion of 2003,” in Gail Levin and Elaine A. King, eds., An Anthology on Ethics in the Art World (New York: Allworth Press, 2006).
[5] For details, see Nada Shabout, “The National Museum of Modern Art: Ethical Implications,” Collections 2/4 (May 2006).
[6] Ben Davis, “The Iraqi Century of Art,”, July 14, 2008.
[7] Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2011.
[8] Associated Press, January 14, 2008.

How to cite this article:

Nada Shabout "In Between, Fragmented and Disoriented," Middle East Report 263 (Summer 2012).

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