yoUpon entering the monotonous building that houses Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, visitors unexpectedly stumble upon some of the country’s greatest treasures. In a newly renovated hall that once served as a cafeteria, 76 precious paintings and sculptures by prominent Iraqi artists are on display for the first time since the National Museum of Modern Art was looted in the aftermath of 2003. Iraq Invade.
“Art is the memory and conscience of the people,” said Fakher Muhammad, head of the ministry’s “Directorate of Fine Arts,” which deals with contemporary paintings and sculptures. During a tour of the recently opened but little-visited gallery hall, Mohamed said that returning artworks “to these walls is just part of our ambition.” He added, “Now there is a real will to restore Iraqi culture to the previous level.”
There were approximately 11,000 works of art in the museum when the United States invaded Iraq, a country once considered among the greatest cultural centers in the Arab world. In the chaos that followed, thieves looted museums and other institutions while American forces stood idly by. Muhammad said, “What happened in 2003 was a severe blow to Iraq’s heritage and the plastic arts movement.” “We suffer from it even today.”
Some of the pieces were hidden by museum staff. Other pieces were later found in local antique markets, including a sculpture by famous artist Jawad Selim. The wooden figurine depicting a woman titled “Motherhood” was worth $300,000, but was purchased from a coveted dealer for $200. However, the fate of the bulk of the pieces is still missing, with the possibility that many of them were smuggled out of the country by international criminal networks to disappear in private collections.
The museum’s inventory today is a quarter of its original size. Less than 600 works have been officially returned, most of them by bona fide private collectors. But Iraq has few legal channels to enforce compensation. The historic UNESCO Convention of the 1970s on the illicit trade in cultural property is futile unless the countries of destination agree to sign binding bilateral treaties obligating them to return the cultural objects.
“If the two parties do not agree, the agreement remains in effect, but it cannot be implemented,” said Junaid Soroush Wali, head of culture at the UNESCO office in Iraq. “The agreements provide a legal framework, but the goodwill must come from the parties.”
This process is further hampered by the lack of a comprehensive database of stolen works, repossession and maintenance funding. Across the hall from the exhibition hall, more than 2,300 other paintings were crammed into storage. A third of them are in dire need of restoration as a result of improper storage, but the ministry’s workshop does not have the equipment to carry out basic repairs.
However, the artworks returned are a source of national pride and an invaluable storehouse of the collective memory of a nation that has suffered countless losses. Spanning more than a century, it tells stories of occupations, uprisings, and wars, and takes visitors on a historical journey from Ottoman and British rule, to the monarchy, to the Baathist era, until the first Gulf War.
One of the oldest paintings is a stunning landscape of Abd al-Qadir al-Rassam, who traveled across the country in the service of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Iraq from the sixteenth century until it passed into British hands after World War I. Rassam became part of a group of artists who led the awakening of Iraqi national identity at a time when the country yearned for self-determination.
Many of these “pioneering” artists were trained in Europe or the Ottoman Empire and returned to Iraq to launch a new art movement, using modern techniques to spread symbols of Iraqi folklore. An example of this style is a mid-20th century color painting by Hafez al-Droubi, a painter and art teacher who studied in Rome and London, and is known for using cubism to depict the life of Baghdad.
Alongside these peaceful scenes from Iraq’s heyday as a rising Arab nation, there are disturbing paintings that narrate – and sometimes predict – its darkest days.
A 1958 painting by Tariq Mazloum commemorating the 1948 Al-Wathba uprising, when crowds of students flooded the streets of Baghdad to reject British control and rising inequality. The painting, titled The Battle of the Eternal Bridge, bears powerful scenes of the revolution, many of which provoke comparisons with the October 2019 revolution. In the center of the painting, security forces shot into crowds trying to cross the Martyr Bridge, named after those killed in 1948. The two movements were exposed of brutal repression, killing hundreds.
Other works seem to foretell violent events long before their time. A 1976 painting by Faik Hassan evokes memories of the American bombing of a civilian shelter during the first Gulf War. The large oil painting shows women and children, eyes and mouths widening in horror, fleeing from what appears to be an explosion. It is noteworthy that it was painted 14 years before the 1991 bombing of the Amiriya shelter, which killed more than 400 civilians.
To the right of the entrance is another ominous piece by Layla Al-Attar, Iraq’s most famous artist, who once served as the museum’s director. Looking through the dark palm grove trunks, the observer’s focus is directed toward the centre, where a distant residential area is blazing. On closer examination, the outline of the fire resembles a map of Iraq, in reference to the far-reaching impact of the war. From the safety of a palm grove, a woman—perhaps the artist—watched Hell as an omen of her own death: Attar was killed in a US missile strike in 1993.
The successive conflicts that have plagued Iraq since the 1980s led to a decline in the cultural landscape long before 2003. While the mid-century pioneers prospered during the boom, by the 1990s their successors fled the stifling climate of wars, sanctions, and Saddam. Hussein’s dictatorship, leaving the artistic movement rudderless, depriving the public of its legacy.
Although the wars have since subsided, the country’s recovery has been hampered by internal strife, corruption, and mismanagement, all of which have eroded public interest in art. Veteran artists remember the days when galleries teemed with visitors and the government invested in the arts, often buying artwork to encourage burgeoning painters.
“The government has been excluded from the arts. We are disappointed with that. “They only care about themselves, not the artists,” said Saad Al-Taei, 78, whose paintings have been exhibited at the ministry. Dozens of Tay’s other works were lost in the looting of 2003. The artist holds little hope that his paintings – or the golden age of pioneers – will one day return.
“Iraqi society is still heading in an unstable direction,” Al-Taie said. Circumstances forced people to retreat inland. The artistic spirit has disappeared.”