November 04, 2007

Louder than Words

One Iraqi artist explains the importance of the gallery this way:

People who are staying here, they find art in the bottom of their interest. It’s not prior to them. The most prior activity is how to keep your head on your shoulders. And that was the challenge Hasan faced. To have this gallery under this terrible situation is a bravery — is real bravery. So, this is why we help him voluntarily. […] Now there is very small role for educated people in Iraq. So, we catch this opportunity. Art is acceptable. But if you directly talk in politics, you will be subject for killing. But, if you paint something, whatever the meaning is, you might be excused. So we try, through art, to say many things that are not allowed if we directly say them. And then we try, gradually, to touch some political sides of our culture. And we don’t guarantee that the next season we will be here to continue. But if we are alive, we will start again.

Baghdad Gallery NY Times story

Published: June 6, 2007

Hasan Nassar, the owner of the Madarat Gallery. “We’re trying to get back the Iraqi open mind,” he said. “It’s a chance for a new period.”

Amid the violence, the crumbling economy and rising religious and political intolerance, Hasan Nassar can see a peaceful, democratic Iraq close at hand, one in which ideas, not bullets, are paramount.

The incubator for his vision is his small art gallery in northern Baghdad, which he opened in early 2006 even as most others were shutting down. He has kept it alive with a relentless rotation of exhibits, lectures, poetry readings and film screenings.

There is urgency to this schedule. Mr. Nassar believes that culture can provide a pathway out of the hate and fear overwhelming Iraq, and he is trying to marshal like-minded Iraqis to join his movement.

Few people outside the shrinking Iraqi art world know of Mr. Nassar, and the trickle of visitors to his Madarat Gallery suggests that many Iraqis would find his notion quixotic. Furthermore, the gallery, the only one left in Baghdad with frequently rotating exhibits, is far from profitable.

But Mr. Nassar persists all the same, passing his days drinking cups of sugary black tea with a scattering of artists and bohemians in the gallery’s courtyard cafe, decorated with friends’ paintings and a stand of tall ficus plants. They talk about culture, politics and their shared belief that the salvation of Iraq rests with the redeeming and ennobling virtues of art.

“We’re trying to get back the Iraqi open mind,” said Mr. Nassar, 37, a plump man who speaks gently and smokes constantly. “It’s a chance for a new period, and I want to be part of that.”

Immediately after the invasion, the cultural community here was flush with optimism. For many artists, the fall of Saddam Hussein promised a new flowering of expression, an artistic liberation. They found clients among the returning exiles and the flood of foreigners, including diplomats and their staffs, aid workers, journalists, even the American military.

“It was the golden age,” said Hadi Mahood, 36, a painter who works in a group studio without electricity in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad. “We hoped for a good life.”

But as the Sunni Arab insurgency grew and sectarian violence overwhelmed the country, the local arts community dissipated. People stopped spending money on all but essential goods, and art sales plummeted. Nearly all of the capital’s galleries closed, and hundreds of the country’s most accomplished artists joined the Iraqis who were fleeing the country. Those who remained retreated to the obscurity of their studios or lay down their tools altogether.

Many have concluded that their lives as artists were better under Mr. Hussein.

“One million times better,” said Noori al-Rawi, 82, a painter, curator and art scholar who founded four museums in Baghdad and is regarded by many in the Iraqi art world as one of the pioneers of modern Iraqi art.

Mr. Rawi has become so depressed by the state of his country that he has not picked up a paintbrush for more than two years. He says he is ready to gather all of his art history archives — articles, books, reviews, photographs, slides and paintings — and burn them.

“I feel now that all humanity is against Iraq and against the Iraqi people and against Iraqi history and against Iraqi culture,” Mr. Rawi, frail and slight, said on a recent afternoon while sitting in his dormant studio in western Baghdad. “We entered an endless dark tunnel.”

Even during the terror and cruelty of Mr. Hussein’s reign, there was an active arts market, many galleries, and national and international art shows.

Mr. Hussein himself was a patron of the arts, sponsoring competitions, exhibitions and scholarships. But he was far from an egalitarian benefactor. He rewarded those who honored him with flattering sculptures and paintings and sometimes pressed pre-eminent artists into such projects. He punished those whose work or words stood against his rule.

“It was a dictatorship, but that dictatorship helped,” said Qasim Sabti, owner of the Hewar Gallery, which opened in 1992 in the Wasiriya neighborhood and became a cultural institution in Baghdad.

His gallery remains one of the few remaining hubs for the cultural community here. But even though its cafe is often busy, exhibits are rare. “Sometimes I am tired, too tired,” said Mr. Sabti, who is 54.

Looking back at Mr. Hussein’s rule, he described the compromises that had been necessary for survival. “You were free to do your art with the government or without the government, but not against the government,” he said.

For that reason, Mr. Nassar does not subscribe to the notion that Iraq was better for artists under Mr. Hussein. He did well with his art, selling paintings through a dealer in Austria. But, he said, life was suffocating for everyone who was not close to the regime.

“Saddam didn’t hurt my family or kill any of my relatives,” he said. “I didn’t suffer from any violence. But life was misery, especially if you liked to be free. In Iraq, you had to follow orders.

“Then we were just breathing. Now we have hope, hope for a good future.”

Optimistic comments like those have become extremely rare in Iraq, especially from people who are not politicians or generals. But while Mr. Nassar knows he is isolated, he insists that he is not alone.

“There are other people who believe this,” he said, “but they need to know each other to become a group.”

One recent morning, in preparation for a lecture by an Iraqi sculptor, Mr. Nassar arranged two dozen plastic chairs into rows in the gallery. He said he made no guarantees to any exhibitor. “He may not make money,” Mr. Nassar said, “but at least he can say: ‘I still exist. I’m still working. I’m still alive.’ ”

Sometimes the challenges are completely mundane. Shortly before the event was to begin, the power went out. Then his generator failed. The gallery was cast into darkness and, with no air-conditioning, the temperature quickly approached 100 degrees. Mr. Nassar was forced to cancel the lecture.

Still, about a half dozen people, including instructors from an art academy across the street, stuck around to talk about art and politics.

Amjad Altayyar, a painter, lamented that the dominant parties and people in Iraqi society were communicating in “the language of power and car bombs.”

“In the small society of this cafe,” he continued, “you can find artists and educated people who belong to different cultures, different nationalities. But the language among them is this notion of acceptance.”

The gallery is linked to Mr. Nassar’s organization, Attitudes Society of Art and Culture, which he founded in 2004 to help promote his notion of a progressive society through cultural programs and exchanges. The bulk of its financing has come from a United Nations program that supports new initiatives in developing countries.

But the membership has fallen with the fortunes of the country, dropping to the current level of 37 from a high of about 200. Many members have fled the country or confined themselves to their homes.

Mr. Nassar says neither he nor his assistants have been threatened by militants because of their involvement in the gallery, though he acknowledges that his liberal ethos makes him an enemy of Shiite and Sunni Arab Islamist militias. The violence all around him has at times been crushing and, last December, forced him to close the gallery for two months.

“I was a few steps away from giving up,” he admitted. But he decided that resigning would be tantamount to dying. “If Iraq were without culture, people would be like animals: the stronger eating the weak. The faster would take out the slow.”

“This war,” he said, “makes hearts like stone.”

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