The Iraqi Artists Replacing Rubbish With Beauty

A group of fine arts students have come together to try and change the appearance of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. “We wanted to draw on the city’s walls and concrete barriers to bring a bit of beauty back to the city,” explains Zainab al-Hala, one of the art students, who painted the musical notes of the Iraqi anthem on the walls of Mustansiriya University, one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutes. 

The art work that resulted was supposed to foster values like peace and solidarity and to promote political slogans that more accurately reflect the desires of Iraq’s younger generation. “There are no political parties supporting this project,” al-Hala told NIQASH. “All the materials were bought with money collected by the participants or with their own money. And everyone contributes according to the skills or means they have.”

He had heard about the campaign on social media, said another of the participants, Laith Sabri. It started on the Facebook page created by four young Iraqi men. “The page deals with a variety of things around the idea of doing good,” Sabri explained. “Such as distributing aid to the poor, cleaning the streets or clearing rubbish.” “So far around 150 people have participated,” he noted. 

Those numbers are likely to rise over the upcoming summer holidays. Sabri was very enthusiastic about the campaign and said he was happy to try and contribute something to his country even though, as he acknowledged, people make light of this kind of project in the middle of Iraq’s apparently unending conflict and violence. 

Even if it did nothing for anybody else, Sabri says that it gave himself and his friends hope. “It also helps to showcase the talent of the people involved,” he added, “especially because the government does almost nothing to support this sector of society.” Maha al-Qaisi has been taking part in the beautification campaign since it began and she’s left 13 paintings on walls around the city. 

Al-Qaisi says she is happy to have been able to leave what she describes as “a positive mark” on the city’s walls, a mark that aptly reflects her own ideological positions. Al-Qaisi explains how the project works: At the end of each month the participants use the Facebook page to agree on a location for their next effort. 

After names are registered, volunteers each pay around IQD10,000 (about US$8.60) and this money is used to buy any materials needed. Al-Qaisi says the painting can sometimes take up to two weeks to finish and at the moment, the work usually starts after sundown to avid soaring summer temperatures in Iraq. 

Large amounts of graffiti first started appearing on Baghdad walls in 2005, just before the height of a sort of sectarian civil war, following the 2003 US-led invasion of the country. Often the graffiti indicated the demographics of certain suburbs and whether it was safe for Sunni Muslims or Shiite Muslims to be in certain parts of town or not. 

The artists and volunteers want to replace this kind of thing with something more beautiful. Those working on painting the walls can choose whatever they want to paint although there are relaxed guidelines that suggest subject matter should be related to Iraq or Baghdad. “So for instance, palm trees and local landscapes,” al-Qaisi says. 

“Most of the people do not care about how clean the roads are and they’re not that excited by what we’re doing,” al-Qaisi admits. “And in fact, a lot of the places where we paint and clean actually get dirty again really quickly.” But Manal Saleh, a professor at Mustansiriya University, begs to differ. “The flowers they draw on the walls have a psychological impact,” she says. 

“They motivate people to care more for the city. These young volunteers are resisting terrorism and sectarianism and betrayal. It is no exaggeration to say that these drawings are beautiful, in the way they reflect a love of life and a real and strong desire to heal this country’s wounds. The painters want beauty to replace ugliness and this must impact on the people of this city,” she argues. 

“The volunteer work of these young people is a great lesson in love and peace and national unity,” adds civil society activist Shaima Matar. “These are values that are conspicuously absent from the political scene here.” 

by Sara al-Qaher
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