I filed this web story for the UNHCR on the opening of an exhibition in Damascus of 20 Iraqi refugee painters. The photo is by Gabriela Brust.
Calling themselves the “Babylon Artists,” the group of painters – including four women – reflect the stories and livelihoods of Iraqi refugees in Syria and the wider region. Some works are rooted in traditional Arabic calligraphy. Others are purely abstract: from the heavy brushstrokes of red, yellow and green that meet in the centre of Wadhah Mahdi’s paintings, to the clouds of colour that characterize Majid Hashim’s work.
“I took my ideas from my country’s art history,” art teacher Hashim said, while adding: “There is a long history of the visual arts from ancient Iraqi culture, from the legacy of Babylon.” A native of the ancient city, he fled to Syria with his wife and two children in 2006 after they were threatened by militias.
Omar Odeh’s large abstract work, “Love Story,” reflects his optimism about the situation in Iraq. He and his family fled to Damascus three years ago to escape a wave of sectarianism that was sweeping Iraq. He recently returned to Baghdad to visit family and friends and described the security situation as “much improved.”
Unlike his artistic colleagues, Waleed Hassan was persecuted for his work by a group that objected to his representation of the human form in his art. In exile for seven months with his wife and two of his four children, Hassan uses colours and landscapes to remind him of a more peaceful Iraq.
He points to one painting of yellow-brown, red and blue and explains that it “is a memory of the marshes of southern Iraq, where people live above the water on small boats and simple houses.” Another of his works depicts the countryside south of Baghdad where he and his family sought shelter at the start of the Gulf War of 2003.
A third painting shows the historic central quarter of Baghdad. Two figures make their way through the market, but their form is elongated, making them look as though they are swaying in the wind. “Baghdad’s Old City does not exist as it once did,” Hassan said. “But with many of these paintings, we try to capture the memories.”