How Iraq’s Provincial Artists Adapt To European, Gulf Tastes

Adel Daoud runs a small shop close to the main post office in the centre of southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. Here he makes his own artworks and tries to sell those from other local artists. But it’s hard. 

“Nobody here really cares that much about art,” he says. “They are too busy with their day-to-day concerns and they don’t want to spend US$60 on a painting. It has been six months since I sold a painting to anyone in this city. That’s why we search for customers further away.” 

Daoud ships the paintings to a merchant in Baghdad, who then moves them onto galleries in the United Arab Emirates, where people are willing to spend money on art. “In the Arab markets, a lot of customers want art that has an Islamic style,” Daoud tells NIQASH. 

“They have their own ideas about what makes for good art in a conservative society. In European markets, where we sell our art through dealers, they want art that has some sort of cultural flavour – that is, something that seems to embody Iraqi or Middle Eastern culture, or they like the idea of ancient Sumerian civilisations.” 

The Internet has really helped local artists, says Mohammed Hashim, another local creative. It has helped with international sales and it has also freed local artists from having to cater only to the local community’s tastes. 

Hashim has been sending his own artworks to places like Jordan, Syria and the Gulf states since 1999, via art dealers. He says that at first it was difficult due to the international sanctions on Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime. 

Back then it was even hard to communicate with anyone in those markets. But the Internet and the US-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 have made a major difference. Still, it’s not hugely lucrative work. 

Hashim works in his own house and says he gets about a quarter of the final price that was paid for his paintings. “The rest goes to the dealers and brokers,” he explains. Daoud confirms this: “What we make is a lot less than we should, and what it costs us to paint the works. But we must continue – both for the sake of our families and of the art form,” he argues. 

Mohammed Sawidi, another local artist, believes there are about 70 artists registered as such in Dhi Qar but that most of them do not make a living from their creativity. “They work in other professions that have nothing to do with their art,” he says. 

Iraq barely has any kind of art market or network of gallerists, Sawidi continues, and art schools are often restricted from opening outside of the main centres for religious reasons. “There are very few in this area who can make a living as a professional artist,” Sawidi concludes. 

“And they must depend on external markets to do so. But that doesn’t mean that Dhi Qar artists should stop working – they should use this as it’s the only option for them - at least for now.” 

by Haider al-Hajami

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