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Art is no escape from suffering and war


Recently I interviewed an Iraqi artist. I was glad to be talking about art -- pure color, pure form, apolitical and universal.

Fine-featured, his voice low, his English halting, Salah told me about his childhood in Baghdad. He said he grew up amid the shanasheels: houses whose upper levels were all windows, brilliant stained glass framed in dark wood. These windows jutted forward until they nearly met each other, and they shaded the narrow road between them. “Whatever the angle of view, they looked beautiful,” he said, “and the washed clothes on ropes added to the colors.”

As a boy, he watched students from the art academy set up their easels at the edge of the road. His sister went to the academy, too, and when he was 5, she gave him a paint box and showed him how to mix the colors. He wanted to do as he pleased: paint the flag of Iraq, or the bright sails of the fishermen’s boats on the Dijalah River. But soon his father, who worked in the Ministry of Culture, began to critique his work seriously, and Salah went back to his sister and begged for proper lessons.

“Baghdad was a very alive, beautiful city then, like a big family,” he recalled. “And then, when I was 7, I opened my eyes to war.” I felt my hand tighten on my pen. War? I wanted to talk about art. I wanted respite from guilt and fear and other people’s suffering, and he’d caught me off guard.

“Waiting for bad news was an act of every day,” he continued. “Waiting for coffins was an act of every day. To see sadness in the eyes of mothers was just … normal. Many hard, negative feelings grew inside me, very strong feelings and energy. It’s a kind of energy that looks for a way out.” He leaned forward.

“Art is not a luxury,” he reminded me. “It is a way to diffuse that energy.”

He wound up in the Academy of Fine Arts, his work shown alongside the most famous artists in Iraq. Everything he painted was marked by contrast.

“There was no gradual development of emotions in my life,” he explained. “My early childhood was full of beauty, colors and joy, and the war broke all that into sadness and hopelessness.”

At first he tried to escape -- just as I had, when I avoided the political activists and interviewed an artist. He went to work as a children’s illustrator, retreating into the happy dreams of his own childhood. The idyll didn’t last; they never do. Realizing there was no escape, he began to paint the darkness inside him.

“Draw a tree, draw a flower, draw something beautiful,” people urged. “The trees in my life are cut,” he replied. “The roses are dying.” He began painting Iraqi women, searching constantly for “something else than sadness in their faces. I couldn’t find it. I drew women from all angles, and I could find nothing but sadness.”

In 1998, he left the Academy and saw, firsthand, the way his country was exploding into shards. He began juxtaposing Iraq’s past with its future in his canvases, using an X to mark the division, the vantage point, and the split between his inner and outer self. He worked in symbolic colors -- yellow for poverty, illness, a living death. Purple for hope, dreams, the beauty of the past. White for the unknown future.

He incorporated symbols from ancient Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations -- the gates of Ashtar, the lion, the mosaics -- that had lived in his mind since he visited Babylon at age 10. His work was shown at Kuwait University and the Goya Museum in Granada, Spain.

Last May, Salah came to St. Louis as a refugee. “I am not forgetting where I come from, and how my Iraqi family is suffering,” he assured me. “One of my paintings is a mother, and her daughter lost in an orchard, terrified, their faces dark as the sun sets. This is how I see the future of Iraq. Women lost, widowed, waiting for husbands who will never return. Children growing up without parents.

“Iraq is a green orchard. But it is not safe.”

We talked in June. His country is even less safe now. And I can’t avoid the politics of war.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002