Syria: Iraqi artists, now refugees, struggle to pursue art in exile

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My recent story for the Christian Science Monitor (with more coming):

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA – To support his art in Baghdad, Alaa Ismael opened an interior-design office in a commercial area near his house. But after the American invasion, customers dwindled as checkpoints choked the city.

In 2004, his office was burned and robbed by extremists. “They killed everyone, not only artists,” he said. “Jihadis would threaten us, calling us ‘kafirs’ [unbelievers] because of our art, because of the style or subject of our work.” While he was never threatened personally, “threats were all around.”

So Mr. Ismael left with his wife, sister, and nephews for Syria, where he has been for the past five years. He quickly shakes his head when asked about going back. His oldest daughter was an infant when they left Iraq; his second daughter was born here this year.

They all share the same apartment in a ramshackle hillside neighborhood overlooking Damascus. One of its rooms is his studio, where large finished canvases and rolled-up paintings are stacked, unsold.

Ismael is one of dozens of Iraqi refugee artists here, struggling to paint and sell his work to support himself and his family and maintain a semblance of his former life in Baghdad.

“Before the war, Baghdad was the cultural and artistic center,” Ismael said. “There were galleries, art schools, universities. There was movement.”

For him, more opportunities in art exist abroad now – through friends and fellow artists in the Gulf and Europe – than in exile here in Syria.

Omar and Alaa are but two of the dozens of Iraqi artists in Damascus right now. Skilled painters, some abstract, some based in Islamic calligraphy and stylized Arabic text, they were a vital part of culture and society of pre-invasion Iraq and now have an equal place among the millions of Iraqi refugees in the region and across the globe. Read the rest here.

Iraqi artists in Syria get a rare chance to exhibit their work

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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.”

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