Iraq preps exhibition of its looted modern art

Published November 30th, 2014 - 08:26 GMT

The Iraqi Ministry of Culture is preparing for the inauguration of a new exhibition hall in Baghdad that will display a unique collection of Iraqi modern art after years of painstaking work to salvage what remains of the work of some of the country’s most famous avant-garde artists.

Iraqi curators and specialists at the government’s Fine Art Department have slowly been able to bring together a sizable remnant of the works of Iraq’s pioneering modern artists after many pieces vanished during the widespread looting that followed the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. 

Thanks to individual and government efforts, numerous pieces have now been recovered, though many are still missing. The Iraqi government has been cooperating with Interpol to relocate the works of art and track down the smuggling rings trading in them. Some individual Iraqis have even taken it on themselves to help efforts to return the paintings that were once housed at the former Saddam Center for the Arts, now the National Museum of Modern Art.

Most of the pieces will be going on public display for the first time, such as the work of mid-twentieth century graphic designer Rafa Al-Naseri and pieces by contemporary world-class artists such as Dia al-Azzawi, Ali Talib, Saleh Al-Jomaie, Mohamed Mahruddin, Hana Malullah, and others who have left their imprint on the Iraqi fine art scene such as societies Eighty-Four Group and the Modernizers.

Salam Atta Sabri, director of the National Museum of Modern Art, said: “The exhibition hall will be a real surprise to the visitors as well as to those interested in fine art. We find it important that these pieces go on display because they have not been displayed publicly for quite a long time.”

“Some of the works underwent restoration and maintenance after they were recovered following the museum’s looting in 2003,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Sabri says that the most important of the works on display is Dia al-Azzawi’s The Lost City painted in the 1970s. He explains that it was recovered when the thief tried to sell it to an Arab museum and Interpol identified the painting and notified Azzawi who then contacted the museum in Iraq. There is also a rare portrait of Palestinian author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra in ink by artist Salah Jiyad.

Sculpture also features in the exhibit with pieces by Azzam al-Bazzaz, Mohamed Al-Husni, Ismail Fattah Al-Turk, Mekki Hussein, Jihad Kareem and Abdelrahim Al-Wakil.

Sabri said that a large area in the exhibition has been allocated to showcase the work of prominent female artists who contributed to laying the foundations of the Iraqi fine art movement. The new exhibition includes works by Bahija Al-Hakim, Asmaa Al-Agha, Suad Al-Attar, Roya Raouf, and Layla Al-Attar, who was killed in a US bomb attack on her Baghdad home in 1993.

The National Museum of Modern Art was officially inaugurated in 1962, holding a few paintings by Jawad Saleem, Hafez Al-Droubi, Ismail Al Shaikhly and other members of the early modern art movement. 

In undertaking the huge task of reassembling the collection of modern art, the Ministry of Culture appealed to citizens and artists to donate works and help track down looted items. “We are now receiving excellent responses from renowned artists and interested people, our most recent acquisition was a sculpture by Hisham Zidan, donated by artist Haydar Salem,” said Dr. Shafiq Al-Mahdi, director of the Fine Art Department within the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.

Mahdi says that they will soon be visited by well-known Iraqi architect Rifaat Al-Jaderji who will donate 300 important pieces from his own collection. 

Despite the significant progress made to rehabilitate the art, Mahdi told Asharq Al-Awsat that they were still suffering from a lack of space to exhibit the items. “We have nearly 2,070 works of art, most of which are considered rare, valuable pieces, and we would like them to go on public display for visiting delegations, as well as for the Iraqi people so that they can take a closer look at Iraqi civilization and understand the stature of Iraqi fine art.” 

In a promising sign, Mahdi said that there will shortly be an official inauguration of the famous Gulbenkian Hall, the largest art hall in the heart of Baghdad, that will function as a venue for exhibitions. 

Sabri said that he hopes that a new modern art museum will be constructed to preserve Iraq’s heritage for future generations.

Artist Kifah Al-Amin has called on officials at the Ministry of Culture to take care of the treasures in their possession, particularly ensuring that they are kept under strict temperature and humidity controls. Amin reiterated the need for more space to put exhibits on display, saying that many pieces are languishing away in dusty rooms in government offices.

Iraq’s ministries of culture, interior, foreign affairs, justice, tourism and antiquities are cooperating and coordinating with the efforts of the Iraqi people in order to recover lost Iraqi art.

By Afrah Shawqi


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