This article published in The Guardian in 2004 describes the situation of art in Iraq during Saddam’s dictatorship (1973-2003) and during the American occupation that followed the fall of the dictator.
During the years of the dictatorship what the reporter calls a “Presidential Art” flourished, generously subsidized by the State and whose objective was to situate the figure of the ruler as the protagonist of an epic-heroic narrative and his deeds in the fight against imperialism. A system of rewards and sanctions stimulated and punished respectively artistic creation according to its degree of “commitment” to the regime. Artists on the margins of the state system, subject to official censorship, although they kept their “souls intact”, moved in a more impoverished market and had to seek their income elsewhere.
The hopes brought about by the American occupation were ephemeral, and although initially there was a flourishing of the local market that favoured the sale of art to journalists and NGO personnel, the terrorist attacks put an end to all this and a setback took place that led the artists to a situation of repression similar to that experienced during the dictatorship. The liberating troops became occupation forces, and encouraged the emergence of surveillance and censorship mechanisms to control the situation on the ground. On the other hand, the rise of the fundamentalist movement placed under suspicion those who expressed themselves outside orthodoxy.
Iraqi sculptor and painter Karim Khalil shows his work created on the margins of both systems. He expresses his commitment to the creation “I never did anything for the regime and as you see I prefer this to selling my soul like others” and his works show some of the iconic elements of the repression and torture of those years. Marble figurines depicting bodies handcuffed with heads covered with hoods or the iconic figure of the prisoner with a sack on his head and held up in a drawer. In his paintings he also shows the effects of the war:
“I would love to paint flowers and happy life but go out to the street and tell me where can I find these”