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Iraqi Art

Monument on the parade grounds in Baghdad, by Mohammad Ghani
Monument on the parade grounds in Baghdad, by Mohammad Ghani

Early Islamic art in Iraq was famous for its calligraphy and miniatures, and the tradition in these arts has continued. Shiite Islam, rooted in Iraq, has fewer misgivings about portraying humans than does Sunni Islam. The other visual arts, such as modern painting, bear the mark of having been imported from the West during the colonial and postcolonial periods.

During the Saddam era, painting portraits of Saddam or adding them to national monuments seemed the only safe line of work for artists. Mohammad Ghani (1929-2011) became known for his huge, megalomaniac monument commissioned by Saddam Hussein, which was erected to mark the supposed victory over Iran in 1988, even though the monument was built before the war ended.

Many artists preferred to live abroad. Iraqis have a strong presence in the cultural world of the Gulf, and in London, Amsterdam, and New York there are galleries that regularly show Iraqi art.

One of the most influential Iraqi artists is Zaha Hadid (b. 1950), who studied in Beirut, worked at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and, in 2004, became the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Among artists based in The Netherlands are Nedim Kufi (b. 1962), Qassim Alsaedy (b. 1949), and Halim al-Karim (b. 1963). Al-Karim received the Jury Prize for painting at the International Cairo Biennale in 2001; he emigrated to the United States, and his works are now found in the Saatchi catalogue. Caricaturist Ali Mandalawi (b. 1958), who once fled to the Netherlands, returned to Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan could now be a safe haven for artists, but the Kurdish authorities’ many restrictions are discouraging that development. As a result, many Kurdish artists, such as Adalet R. Garmiany and Sherko Abbas (b. 1978), divide their time between their homeland and Europe.

Since the downfall of the regime of Saddam Hussein the outline of a cultural struggle has developed between Islamists and secularists. Islamists use their newly-won power to combat secular influences in Iraqi society.

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