Meet the street artists helping to heal Mosul’s wounds

On the same brick walls that were once covered with ISIS propaganda sowing hatred and division, a group of graffiti artists in Mosul now paint unifying messages of hope. The team of painters and art students, the 7Arts group, is trying to put colour back into the lives of the residents of a city that was the crown jewel of the extremist group’s "caliphate". 

The art project is trying to help revive the city after the trauma of ISIS occupation. The 7Arts founder, Taj Al Deen Mali, told The National that Mosul “has sustained unspeakable devastation, leaving its residents with deep emotional wounds". 

“We want to act as psychiatrists to heal these wounds,” said Mr Mali, 26. The capital of Nineveh province and Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul was captured by the extremist group during the lightning onslaught in mid-2014, which brought large parts of northern and western Iraq under its influence. 

With nearly a third of the country under the group’s control, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate from the pulpit of one of Mosul’s landmark mosques. During its reign, the militant group introduced a strict regime in line with its radical interpretation of Islamic law. 

Women had to be covered from head to toe and men had to grow beards, while fanatics hurled those accused of homosexuality from the tops of buildings. Arts and culture suffered badly under ISIS. Non-religious art was prohibited, artworks and musical instruments were destroyed and statues commemorating poets and writers, as well as historical and archaeological sites, were demolished. 

The extremist group’s assault on art and culture spurred Mr Mali to take action. He recalled having to hide his paintings and art books in big bags, fearing punishment at the hands of ISIS enforcers. Shortly after Mosul was liberated by US-backed Iraqi troops in late 2017, Mr Mali founded the 7Arts team. 

Back then the group consisted of four people, and it now has 12 members, seven of whom are women. The first thing they did was face painting and art events for Mosul’s orphans and children suffering from thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder that causes anaemia. 

The team has since put on painting events, short films, cultural exhibitions and musical and theatrical performances. But their flagship projects are the large murals they have painted, which depict the peaceful coexistence of Mosul’s diverse religious and ethnic groups. 

“Those walls were filled with Daesh murals that spread only extremism and hatred,” Mr Mali said. “We decided to beautify the city with something that brings joy, hope and comfort.” The murals also depict some of the important figures assassinated by ISIS, and some of the city’s lost landmarks. 

The latest mural the team has painted is its biggest yet, stretching for nearly 60 metres along the wall of the city’s Water Department in Al Zihoor neighbourhood. It was painted in celebration of International Women’s Day last month, and shows famous women including the late Iraq-born British architect, Zaha Hadid, Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, and Venus, the Roman goddess of love. 

All are depicted without veils. “We want to change attitudes to women through these paintings,” said Rossel Mohammed, 20, a student in the English department at the College of Arts. “There are still people who have the same opinions as Daesh and believe a woman’s place is at home and her only role in life is to get married and to give birth. 

“The colours we have chosen are the ones that spur optimism, love and joy in everyone who looks at them." Ms Mohammed joined the 7Arts team two months ago. When ISIS swept through Mosul, her family fled to Baghdad where she experienced a different cultural environment to her conservative hometown. 

She said that one work depicting a woman as a rose was intended to show that women had survived the terror of Mosul’s occupation. “Despite the oppression she has endured, she’s still open-minded and continues to be generous,” Ms Mohammed said. The 4Arts team’s next mission will be in Mosul’s Old City, which was the last bastion for ISIS fighters in the months-long battle to drive them out and is still largely in ruins. 

“We will paint on the damaged buildings to draw the world’s attention to the fact that the city is still in ruins more than three years after liberation,” Ms Mohammed said. “We hope that our work will increase support for the city and speed up its rebuilding." 

by Sinan Mahmoud

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