Mina al-Hilu has a dream. The 39-year-old Iraqi artist, a resident of Baghdad, wants to start a culture forum where artists can exhibit, concerts can be held, films shown, coffee drunk and stimulating conversations had, a place where the city’s intellectuals, writers and other creatives can meet. In March 2016, al-Hilu’s dream came a little closer to reality.
She and a group of her fellow artists decided not to wait for the country’s financial or security situation to improve. “We decided to join hands and bring all of our expertise together. In March 2016, we started with a gallery that displayed our own art. We also held an exhibition of work by Sajida al-Mashaikhi and then another one by well known modern artist, Jamil Hamoudi.
The latter attracted a lot of people and we were able to hold more events after that,” al-Hilu explains. The centre where the exhibitions were held is called The Peak (of Baghdad) and it is located in a quiet street in the upmarket suburb of Karrada. If any of the artworks sell, the artists take a percentage of the price to further fund the centre.
“I believe there is an emergence of new and interesting young talents,” al-Hilu says. “These should be showcased and introduced to the general public.” Over the past few years, the cultural life of the Iraqi capital seems to have stagnated.
The government used to organize state-funded exhibitions but as it became more difficult for the general public to travel around the city, thanks to increased security measures, fewer people went to the shows. Baghdad used to have a lot of different outlets for artists to display their work, everything from large government-funded modern art museums to many privately-run galleries.
Artists would come to the big city to visit galleries, study, meet with better known artists and to put their work on display. However as government support has dissipated and the security situation worsened many galleries began to close their doors. Their owners, the artists or the art buyers may well have immigrated or left the country temporarily.
“Under the current conditions, buying art and sculpture is one of the last things that Iraqis – who are spending money on more important needs, like housing, education, power generators – are thinking about,” al-Hilu admits. “Artists also tend to price their work beyond that which ordinary people can afford,” she laments.
The weekly demonstrations, usually held after church on Fridays in Baghdad, also cause the artists problems. “It is the only day on which we can really organize events,” al-Hilu explains. “But on the same day a lot of roads are closed for security reasons and it becomes very difficult for people to travel.”
Nonetheless over the past few weeks, a number of new galleries and culture centres have been opening, including galleries like Bronze Hall, Inanna Hall and the Art Fan gallery. Most of them are commercial ventures though and it is hard to say how successful they can be in the current climate.
Artist Maher al-Taei says that the new works being exhibited should be carefully chosen so that the local art scene is encouraged; works should be new and interesting, not just the same old things, he says. They should encourage new audiences and should not just be used to promote commercially viable works.
“These new openings are very important initiatives,” agrees artist Nasser al-Rubaie, who also runs a local arts magazine, Balet. “And they are very positive. But they need support. Investors in art should also be encouraged by incentives. We do not want to see these new galleries close their doors as quickly as some of their predecessors were forced to.”
“The opening of this centre is a step toward supporting art in Iraq,” says Hamid Ruwaid, an artist and the manager of the newly opened House of Wisdom, a cultural centre within a larger centre for Iraq’s Sabean-Mandaean minority in Baghdad. The centre will facilitate the exchange of experiences between different groups in Baghdad, as well as contribute to the revitalization of the arts scene in the city, Ruwaid says.
“Initiatives like these are indications of how life is returning to the city,” says Shafiq al-Mahdi, director of the Fine Arts Department at the Ministry of Culture. “They provide a new outlet for creativity and are inspiring, especially for young people,” he told NIQASH.
“The increase in the number of galleries in the city is so important. It will encourage people to return to Baghdad and will revive the beauty of urban evenings, lost to us for so long because of wars and fear of the unknown.”
“Art and culture cannot be fostered solely by the government,” al-Mahdi continued. “There must be active involvement by civil society and cultural institutions. These bodies should develop programs for government assistance together with the Ministry of Culture.”