Violence lull spurs timid revival in Iraqi art

Mon Nov 16, 2009 9:22am EST
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By Khalid al-Ansary and Deepa Babington

BAGHDAD (Reuters Life!) - A lull in violence has sparked a timid renaissance in Iraqi art after years of dictatorship and bloodshed restricted artistic freedoms.

In a park by the Tigris, a dozen sculptors chip away at marble to carve their vision of Iraqi resilience -- one shows a pregnant woman balancing a water bucket on her head, another features a female bird protecting eggs under her wings.

None of it is groundbreaking in a nation historians consider the cradle of civilization. But after decades as a propaganda vehicle for Saddam Hussein followed by years of living in fear of religious militia after the 2003 U.S-led invasion, the artists are content to simply be allowed to pursue their craft.

"In the past, sculpture and carving were used to serve the political regime but today the sculptor's imagination has been unleashed," said Nasir al-Samarrai, hammering away as part of a project by Baghdad city authorities to promote art.

The outdoor workshop by the river where Samarrai labors is among signs of a timid revival in Baghdad's once flourishing arts scene, which enjoyed its golden era after the 8th century under the Abbasid caliphate. Iraqi art was vibrant in the 20th century until Saddam and his wars began to take their toll.

"Saddam wanted to copy the Assyrian kings to make himself and his works immortal and so he resorted to art for propaganda purposes," said Saad al-Basri, sculpture professor at Baghdad's Fine Art Academy. "After the fall of the regime, there was a new setback to art since fundamentalism was on the rise and some Islamists consider sculpture a taboo."

Artists still struggle because patronage by the elite has dried up and some fear the rise of Shi'ite Muslim dominance in Iraqi life could lead to a period of religious conservatism.

But a fall in attacks by insurgents and militants over the past 18 months has allowed some artists who fled to return and prompted others to transfer their inner torment onto canvas.   Continued...

<p>A visitor looks at paintings at an art exhibition in Baghdad, November 10, 2009. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen</p>