Baghdad's Artists Beautify Blast Walls

Most of Iraq's once-flourishing art galleries have closed their doors. But the U.S. government is paying Iraqi artists to exhibit their talent in another way — by beautifying Baghdad's ubiquitous concrete blast walls.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

During the last five years in Baghdad, the city's become a maze of concrete blast walls. They border the streets to protect shopping areas from car bombs; they line the medians; they divide Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods. They're an ugly, necessary fact of life. But in recent months, the U.S. has paid Iraqi artists to make these walls a bit less intimidating.

NPR's Anne Garrels has a report.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

ANNE GARRELS: The first thing you see these days when you drive into Baghdad from the airport are miles of painted walls, visions of Iraq's glorious past, and dreams of a thriving future.

Mr. MUTHANNA ABBATH(ph): (Through translator) We have romanticized Iraqi life to make people feel better.

GARRELS: Twenty-eight-year-old Muthanna Abbath studies at Baghdad's Fine Arts Institute. He's one of scores of artists the U.S. government has hired to paint 8-by-30-feet cement panels around the city. He's turned the gray blast walls into to vistas of desert life, Bedouins with their tents, falcons and horses. Students from the Fine Arts Institute were commissioned to paint a median here in Central Baghdad just a few feet from bumper-to-bumper traffic. A passing minibus driver was so engrossed by the murals, he nearly crashed into the artists. Another student, Taha Hussein, was afraid the artists might be targeted for taking American money.

Mr. TAHA HUSSEIN (Artist at Baghdad's Fine Arts Institute): (Through translator) We could be hit with bombs, car bombs, snipers.

GARRELS: But given the absence of Iraq's once-flourishing art galleries, most have closed their doors. Taha says this was a welcome way to exhibit their talent, earn some much-needed money, and make the city a little bit more beautiful. The students provided local authorities who supervised the project with sketches for approval. Muthanna says they were well aware there were limits they could not cross.

Mr. ABBATH: (Through translator) If certain people were to disapprove of our paintings, the only way they know how to communicate is with violence.

(Soundbite of Muthanna Abbath singing)

GARRELS: But inside Baghdad's Art Institute, there's a freedom you don't often feel in this city. Muthanna entertains his classmates with love songs as they all work. Young men and women sit next to each other in the studio. They casually walk and talk together in the protected garden.

Ms. MAFFA al-ALID(ph) (Artist at Baghdad's Fine Arts Institute): It's the only place that we can breathe and it's - do you think that we are dead or something?

GARRELS: Here, Maffa al-Alid can paint murals with a hint of sexuality that would not be acceptable outside.

Ms. al-ALID: It's women in village, they are carrying the water from the river. The celebration of the woman's body and inside of these oriental clothes…

GARRELS: If the religious groups …

Ms. al-ALID: Yes.

GARRELS: saw this ....

Ms. al-ALID: Well, I have to say goodbye to myself.

GARRELS: But Maffa has seen some signs of improvement.

Ms. al-ALID: I know we're drawing only for ourselves or we can't expose all these paintings and all that work to the whole public, but we're trying step by step.

GARRELS: She's inspired by her Iraqi professors.

Ms. al-ALID: They are all encouraging us to expose our own personal styles and that is cool, yeah, very cool.

GARRELS: Professor Salam Jaber(ph), an accomplished painter, says he does his best to expose his students to the great artistic traditions from around the world. Submissions for a student drawing competition include female nudes.

Professor SALAM JABER (Baghdad's Fine Arts Institute): (Through translator) This is from life. One of the students posed. We can tell who she was even though the artist had to black out her face. There were the same restrictions under Saddam; we have just exchanged one Saddam for another in a different mask.

GARRELS: The institute is dotted with plaster casts of Greek and Roman classics for the students to draw. When outsiders or officials come in, the nude sculptures are temporarily dressed, lest there be any problems. I asked Professor Salam if the past five years have been worth it.

Professor JABER: (Through translator) It was a price that had to be paid. Others have paid a similar price. You had your civil war. It seems that history is like this.

GARRELS: He calls the ubiquitous blast walls a temporary measure. For once, he will be happy to see art destroyed when it's finally safe enough for the walls to be removed.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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