Iraq’s artists are using their work to try to process the turmoil since the 2003 US-led invasion, and what they are producing shows a profound anger over their country’s traumas and uncertainty over its future.
They have a lot to deal with: A change of regime, foreign occupation, an insurgency, sectarian massacres and, now, the prospect of a divided nation left by the Americans in the hands of unpopular politicians, unprepared security forces and a fragile democracy.
The ambivalence is clear.
Many of the artists lament Saddam Hussein’s ouster but don’t wish to see one day of his rule come back.
They are grateful to America for having rid them of his tyranny but they vilify it as a foreign occupier. The majority Shias see justice in their post-Saddam empowerment after decades of oppression, but say their own politicians are ruining the country.
"The Iraqi people are victimized by everything and everyone," declares Fadel Saddam, who directs short films. "They are victimized by both the ruler and the foreign occupier."
Muayad Muhsin is venting while he paints.
"What we need in Iraq is a ruler who shares Saddam’s tyranny but who fights oppression and corruption and champions the poor," he barked in one of several outbursts to an Associated Press reporter as he worked on his latest canvas.
It was another of the all too frequent 110-degree days when electricity is out and fans and air conditions sit useless. Muhsin’s stuffy, sparse apartment was covered in dust from the previous day’s sandstorm, and the heavyset Muhsin, in shorts and a T-shirt, repeatedly wiped the sweat off his face.
The merciless heat is even enshrined in his work. On the back of one canvas is written: "Painted in 48 Celsius in the shade (118 Fahrenheit) while the power is continuously out in the summer of Iraq."
Like many Iraqis, the 47-year-old Muhsin is filled with anger and feelings of betrayal. He blames everyone and everything for Iraq’s present predicament.
The work in progress depicts a man standing desolately by the side of a road that bends until it disappears into a burning, apocalyptic orange sunset. The man is headless, holding in his left hand an oud, the Middle Eastern lute-like instrument that holds a cherished place in Iraqi culture.
In place of the man’s head is a street light pole.
"He is screaming, How long will we stand still like light poles on deserted roads?" explained Muhsin.
"The sunset gives the impression of the end of the world, the end of a conflict, a horizon that promises new but not necessarily good things."
Muhsin hauls other paintings from a store room. One also shows a headless man — "The head represents rationality, but we Iraqis are headless because of our sectarianism," Muhsin said — standing by a railway that abruptly ends behind him. His body is cracking, as if about to crumble. In the background are the famed ruins of Babylon.
"Before the Americans invaded, we had Saddam and his Baath Party. Now, we have several Saddams and several Baath parties," Muhsin said.
His next work, he says, will be about President Barack Obama.
It will depict him shooting hoops. The hoop will be hanging from a wall depicting the mythological winged bull of Assyria. The Statue of Liberty will be in the background, its back turned on the US leader.
At 30, Omar Al-Saray is already a prize-winning poet, published literary critic, popular college lecturer and chairman of Baghdad’s prestigious Society of Iraqi Poets.
But none of those lofty distinctions could help him when Shias and Sunnis turned against each other in Baghdad with murderous force in 2006 and 2007. Like the hundreds of thousands who feared for their lives, Al-Saray fled the country, traveling in Syria and Lebanon for four months in 2006 after suspected Shia militants left a threatening note on his doorstep.
The note was weighed down by a bullet, a common militant signal: leave quickly or die.
Ironically, Al-Saray is a Shia, though a secular one. The militants assumed he was Sunni because his first name, Omar, is rarely given by Shia families to their children. It’s the name of one of the Prophet Mohamed’s 7th century successors who, while revered by Sunnis, is reviled by many Shias.
"The sectarian violence has divided the city into cantons and a man’s name has become a problem," said Al-Saray, mourning a bygone Baghdad where religious tolerance prevailed over sectarian boundaries.
The blood-soaked days of the sectarian violence height in 2006-2007 are gone, and Al-Saray is taking advantage of Baghdad’s current relative security. His office is littered with empty soda cans, water bottles and overflowing ashtrays from a late night poetry recital two nights earlier, an event that would have been impossible two or three years ago when many feared leaving their homes.
Still, the young poet is less than happy with his country’s state.
"After the fall of Saddam’s regime, the margin of freedom was widened, but we were shocked and disappointed when we found out that they were false freedoms," he lamented.
"The future is scary. The Americans are leaving after they have destroyed so much. They never solved anything. They occupied us, but never took us to the safety of the shore."
Al-Saray’s 2005 poem, "Locks of Hair from the Staircase of Sorrows," speaks of his grief over his nation:
So, God, in the name of war,
We pray and recite your neglected names,
We know that no paradise of peace will open its gates, even late,
And that our dreams are locked,
We have death, we have death, we have what explodes and what kills.
Abdul-Kareem Khalil won international fame back in May 2004 when he exhibited an alabaster statue of a crouching, naked man, his hands tied behind his back and his head covered with a hood.
It came only a week after photographs had emerged showing remarkably similar abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison on Baghdad’s western outskirts. Khalil said he based his sculpture on stories he had heard from former Abu Ghraib inmates freed before the scandal broke.
Six years on, Khalil continues to be inspired by Abu Ghraib and his deep resentment of America’s military presence in Iraq.
One recent statue depicts a woman flanked by two men. All three have paper bags over their heads, recalling the hoods used on detainees by US jailors. One of the men has a protective hand placed on her shoulder. The other man is groping her thighs.
"The second man may be a symbol of evil," explained Khalil.
Like many Iraqi artists, Khalil laments Saddam’s overthrow, not out of love for the dictator, but because of the anarchy that ensued.
His most disturbing sculpture depicts a man raping a woman. Both on their knees, the woman struggles to break free while the man restrains her, his hands pawing her bare breasts.
"The woman is Iraq and the rapist is the American occupier," said Khalil.
"Saddam was not an angel, but he was the head of a regime that had functioning institutions," he said. "We thought that those who will come after him will be better, but that never happened."
Iraqi artist Abdul-Kareem Khalil in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)