We enter the artist’s apartment – let’s call him Khalid – and turn to the left into another room. There is florescent light at one side, to the right, where two painting hang on facing walls that frame the middle wall, which is the workspace. A plastic tarp hangs on the white wall, protecting it from splattered paint, aerosol spray and free strokes. The linoleum floor is not covered and has the shoe sole and color marks of a studio floor. A folding worktable is covered in paint cans and jars and dry brushes.
To the other side of the room, to the left upon entering, is the living room. The television in the corner is showing “First Knight” with Richard Gere and Sean Connery on mute, below more paintings: a pair of tall blue and red figure pieces – “these I don’t like much,” Khalid says – and a yellow and green scene of three thin figures over a bicycle.
A couch on the opposite wall faces the studio corner, flanked on the adjoining wall by two chairs. A place for tea – which he brings ten minutes after showing us the paintings and gushing at our visit.
“These two… are brother and sister” – he points to a pair of white and turquoise-banded paintings on the small wall, cut by the balcony, that faced the living room corner.
“Are they the marshes?” I ask, since they share tones of two of his other paintings, which he described a week before, triumphantly, as “marsh paintings: southern Iraq.”
“No, they are any village,” he replied. “They are the Iraqi villages, along the rivers, or the oases, in the desert.” Faded silhouettes of palms are clouded by white in both paintings – sandstorms maybe, or just the haze of heat.
“Everywhere in Iraq there are palms, like in the States? California? The south? Except in the north, where like you we have other trees” – he makes a motion of descending triangles with his hands.
“Cedars. Pine trees,” I reply. “Like in Lebanon.”
“But the marshes, they are like another world.” Gesticulating, he looks in Arabic for the English word for Martian, or planet, or outerspace. “When I was there, it was like another… planet? People live on the water.”
But he’s not from Basra he’s from Baghdad. He left some three years ago, escaping violence that made a man a target for the militias – in his case Shi’a – because his name – a Sunni name – was suddenly a threat. He won’t go back now. One day “God willing” he will go back, when it is no longer this confessional society, its new meanings enforced by ethnic cleansing and blast and sectarian walls, and when parks and traffic circles and public schools are not being renamed after Shi’a clerics. No more Abu Nawas. No more Salah-ad-Din.
When it is the old Iraq, or even a better new one, when its capital Baghdad can be his home again, a place for an artist – there are so many of them – who were educated there, trained there, members of artist unions there, then forced onto a truck or a taxi, their paintings and supplies strapped to roofs and shoved in suitcases, driving through the desert to Syria, for Damascus, for a refuge. Where they paint today, trying to sell their work for a sum, wondering among other things, like Khalid does, where is the artists’ festival?
“They have celebrity festivals, for musicians, for Nancy Ajram, in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Beirut,” he says. “Where is our festival? Our bi…” Biennial is on the tip of his tongue.
“I want to meet more artists, talk to them, talk to me.”
He sighs and offers us more tea.