Gallery Baghdad: Art Among the Ruins

Iraq Gallery

There’s an art exhibit space in Baghdad, but good luck getting there. This week’s Studio 360 takes you on a trip across the the most dangerous city in the world in search of Madarat Gallery, and it ain’t easy.

The problems start early: simply finding a translator willing to make the journey is a challenge. And that translator, Abdu Ibrahim, has to do much more than navigate language: determining the best travel route, obsessively watching for people following them, even remarking that he was going to die with the Americans. Still, he develops a sense of giddiness as the the trip goes on, as the travelers slipped further and further into open roads, unsure of who might intercept them, and for what. After all, the going rate for an American is $50,000.

Some of the things they encounter:

  • Barricades everywhere. Nearly every side street blocked off by local militias (using burned out cars and office furniture) in order to protect what’s left of neighborhoods.
  • An American military convoy, which they must stay 100 meters behind at all times. If they do not, they will be shot immediately (Abdu has seen it before). The most dangerous thing to do on the road in Iraq is get too close to an American military patrol.
  • Stories of sniper ambushes along the very same road, targeting Iraqi soldiers, policemen, and perceived collaborators.

All this makes one wonder what it must be like to live in a place that’s been in this state for so long. What toll must it take to make your home here? It reminds of the Serb sniper attacks in Goražde, Bosnia that became so regular, residents cobbled together a shielded bridge to deflect the bullets. (see Safe Area Goražde)

Finally, they arrive. The gallery is at first a dark, humid place (there is no municipal electricity). Once a gas generator is switched on, though, the travelers step another world — a space that looks like something out of New York or LA — very different from the war-torn country that lies just outside. On show is a poster competition about violence against women. 35 posters, ranging from literal to abstract. Bravely, one of the pieces is by a woman. (more here)

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.

Powerful stuff. A reminder of what it means to live in a war zone; desperately trying to retain some measure of normalcy in the most abnormal environment imaginable. And a reminder of why art still matters, even here.

Hear the entire story at Studio 360 and visit Madarat Gallery online. Don’t miss the hard hitting Iraq commentary of Battlestar Galactica, discussed in the same episode. And find more on growing up in Iraq at CNN’s Children and War.

images via nytimes and joe sacco

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