And then there were three: Iraqi artist Hanaa Malallah exposes the disappearance of Baghdad’s galleries

National Museum of Iraq. Image: Dave Malkoff

National Museum of Iraq. Image: Dave Malkoff

Royal advocates and oil wealth has nourished art in the Gulf States. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have unleashed a wave of dissident images. Iran produces cutting-edge cinema. So what is happening in Iraq?

While a despotic regime is hardly good news for creativity, it turns out chaos and disorder isn’t much better. When a group of artists and academics addressed the issue as part of the Reel Iraq festival,  the leading contemporary Iraqi artist Hanaa Malallah revealed there were only three functioning galleries left in Baghdad.

By contrast, she said before 2003 she had held many exhibitions without having to provide any kind of explanation to the regime: “Even though Saddam had a cruel dictatorship, we had some freedom to do art. He didn’t put himself completely in control of the artists.”

The institutions supporting artists were now completely destroyed and most of the teachers had left, she added.

Looting of museums in the aftermath of the US-led invasion eroded Iraq’s cultural treasures and it continues today in the form of stripping statues and other public works. Despite the passing of a decade, the most potent images expressing Iraq’s recent history remain those circulated before the invasion and subsequent occupation.

Many of these are bound up with criticism of the invasion –photographs of torture in Abu Ghraib, the blood-spattered logo of the Stop the War movement and ‘Bush and Blair’ cartoons. Even photographs of Iraqis toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue have taken on an ironic symbolism.

Stop the War Coalition poster. Image: Adambro

Stop the War Coalition poster. Image: Adambro

But School of Oriental and African Studies professor Nadje Al-Ali questioned how far these images provided insight into the lives of Iraqis.

In fact, she suggested, they say far more about the West: “In the run up to the war the images had more to do with critique of Blair and Bush than empathy wi

th Iraqis and understanding the complexity of Iraqis.”

She said those presenting Western audiences with images of Iraq needed to be aware the images did not speak for themselves: “People who already know that they want to see will take things selectively from images.”

One Iraqi artist who has challenged the perception of his country is the US-based Wafaa Bilal. His project ‘Shoot an Iraqi’ encouraged internet users around the world to remotely shoot him with a paintball gun. In seven days, he was shot 60,000 times – but his website’s chat room also spawned thousands of pages of discussion.

But in Iraq itself the opportunities for such web-based art remain scarce. Internet penetration remains low – at 8.2% compared to 53.3% for neighbouring Iran and 22.5% for Syria. The past ten years may have given Iraqi artists plenty to articulate, but when it comes to infrastructure and resources, they need all the help they can get.

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About Julia Rampen

London-based journalist. Find me on Twitter @JuliaRampen

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