Iraq exhibits restored artwork looted after 2003 invasion
Baghdad (AFP) – Green landscapes, stylized portraits of peasant women, curved sculptures, an exhibition in Baghdad allows art lovers to rediscover the pioneers of contemporary Iraqi art.
A hundred objects are exhibited in the capital, returned and restored nearly two decades after their looting.
Many works, including works by renowned artists Jawad Selim and Fayiq Hassan, disappeared in 2003 when museums and other institutions were looted in the chaos following the US-led invasion to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein.
Thousands of coins were stolen and organized criminal networks often sold them outside Iraq.
Spotted in Switzerland, the United States, Qatar and neighboring Jordan, sculptures and paintings dating from the 1940s and 1960s have been on display since the end of March at the Ministry of Culture, in a large room that once served as a restaurant.
“These works are part of the history of contemporary art in Iraq,” said ministry official Fakher Mohamed.
In 2003, paintings and sculptures move away from the Saddam Arts Center, one of the most prestigious cultural places in Baghdad at the time.
While crushing political dissent, Saddam cultivated the image of a patron of the arts. The invasion and the years of violence that followed ended a thriving art scene, especially in Baghdad.
Now, relative stability has led to a nascent artistic renaissance, including book fairs and concerts, of which the exhibition organized by the ministry is an example.
It recalls a golden age when Baghdad was considered one of the cultural capitals of the Arab world.
Among canvases of realist, surrealist or expressionist inspiration, a picturesque scene with shimmering colors shows a boat sailing past several “mudhif”, the traditional reed dwellings found in the marshes of southern Iraq.
Other paintings, in dark colors, represent terrified inhabitants surrounded by corpses, fleeing a village in flames.
Elsewhere, a woman is shown prostrate in a scene of destruction, kneeling before a protruding arm of stones.
There is also a wooden sculpture of a gazelle with undulating curves and the “mother statue” – a work by Jawad Selim which depicts a woman with a slender neck and raised arms.
The latter, worth several hundred million dollars, was rediscovered in a district of Baghdad renowned for its antique shops and flea markets. According to sculptor Taha Wahib, who bought it for just $200, it was in the possession of a dealer unaware of its true value.
The looters had in some cases taken photos out of their frames, sometimes with box cutters, to steal them more easily.
“Some pieces were damaged during the events of 2003, or they were stored in poor conditions for many years,” Mohamed, an official at the culture ministry, told AFP.
But “they were restored in record time,” he said.
Other works are held back for now, some are awaiting restoration – but they will be on display once more, Mohamed promised.
He wants to open more showrooms to show the entire collection of salvaged objects.
“Museums should be open to the public – these works should not remain imprisoned in warehouses,” he said.
The 7,000 items stolen in 2003 included “priceless works”, and around 2,300 were returned to Iraq, according to exhibition curator Lamiaa al-Jawari.
In 2004, she joined a committee of artists committed to recovering the many stolen national treasures.
“Some were picked up through official channels” including the Swiss Embassy, she said, but private individuals also helped.
Authorities are coordinating with Interpol and the last renditions took place in 2021.
The selection presented will be changed from time to time, “to show visitors all this artistic heritage”, Jawari said.
Ali Al-Najar, an 82-year-old artist who has lived in Sweden for 20 years, is on vacation in his native country.
He hosted the exhibition.
“The pioneers are those who initiated Iraqi art. If we forget them, we lose our foundations” as a society, Najar said.
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