MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Iraq was once a center for visual arts. The Ottomans, the British and the Iraqi rulers who followed prided themselves on a system where artists learn their craft abroad and then taught it back home.
Artists even thrived under Saddam. Then came war, sanctions and more war, and most of Iraq's artists went into exile. For those who have stayed in the country, NPR's Kelly McEvers reports that very few of them make work that reflects the violence and suffering that surrounds them.
KELLY McEVERS: Under Saddam, artists knew that as long as they stayed on message - building monuments to the regime or making paintings that showed the dictator as a benevolent folk hero - they wouldn't be punished.
Other artists learn that abstraction was not only a way to emulate their counterparts in the West, but it was also a way to conceal their ideas from the dictator. Well, there's no dictator now and yet the number of galleries that sell Iraqi art in Baghdad is just a fraction of what it was before. Abu Afnan is one of the few who stayed open through it all.
Mr. ABU AFNAN (Art Gallery Owner): This is my gallery, Gallery Afnan.
McEVERS: Some of the gallery's best paintings are by the so-called sanctions generation, who came into their own during the '90s.
Mr. AFNAN: (Foreign language spoken)
McEVERS: But aside from a little turbulence in one painter's work...
He uses black, he uses colorful children, but in sort of a setting that looks sad or bleak.
The others are pretty tame: abstract water buffalo, collages of a bygone Baghdad, cubist versions of veiled women. In other words, there's no war here. Abu Afnan says that's the way the artists want it.
Mr. AFNAN: (Through translator) Violence is like one of the daily things that we see every day, and we will not forget about it. We don't want to have violence even in our - in the paintings that we draw.
McEVERS: Other artists say it's much more sinister than that. Across town, at another well-known gallery, the owner throws big river fish on the fire for lunch.
Mahir Mohammad is a ceramicist and art professor. He says if Iraqi artists depicted the violence around them, that would be seen as critical of the government.
Mr. MAHIR MOHAMMAD (Ceramicist and Art Professor): They want us to say the government is good and the American is good, the policy now is good.
McEVERS: The government has been cracking down in recent weeks. Officials threatened to tear down public sculptures that show the human form.
Mohammad says artists fear being harassed or even kidnapped.
Nearly everyone here agrees that if Iraqi artists want to make work about violence and destruction, they're more free to do it outside Iraq.
That was clear at a recent opening of the well-guarded French cultural center here. The work was by an Iraqi artist who's based in Paris.
Karim Saifou's pieces are like two paintings on top of each other. The bottom layer is made of shapes from Iraq's Sumerian and Babylonian past. The top layer is black, angry.
I guess the layer that represents sort of the ancient world is one of beauty, and the layer that represents the modern world is one that - hmm - is chaos and difficult.
Mr. KARIM SAIFOU (Artist): (Through translator) This is the message I wanted, that there was a ruining or destruction of the Baghdadi culture, of the ancient culture.
(Foreign language spoken)
McEVERS: Like the museum, he says, meaning like after the American invasion, when Iraq's art museums were looted and no one did anything to stop it.
This kind of work plays well in Europe and America. In fact, the more violent Iraqi art is, the more Westerners seem to like it.
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
McEVERS: Later, after the opening, a few artists gathered for a panel discussion. One Iraqi sculptor came in late. His jacket was rumpled, his speech uncouth.
His name is Abdel-Karim Khalil. His best-known work is a piece in the shape of the iconic torture photograph taken at the Abu Ghraib prison. Khalil carved the man with outstretched arms in marble, put a paper bag on his head.
Khalil's work was featured in a show in Texas. But he was denied a visa to the U.S.
Mr. ABDEL-KARIM KHALIL (Artist): It is a woman.
McEVERS: Khalil later brought us to his home studio. His work was a striking example of how difficult it can be to make a radio story about art.
Is this a - it's like this - like traditional sculpture, like with Greece.
What I was trying to say is that its pieces are marble figures in classical Greek poses, but then you realize they're cadavers with staples in them or wearing bizarre military helmets - beautiful and horrifying all at the same time.
Khalil says his pieces come from violent images he remembers from the war, images he can't get out of his head.
Mr. KHALIL: (Through translator) They are pressurizing me. They are paining me a lot. So just to get rid of the pain of them, their impact on me, so I make them on marble, on sketches here and there. So I can - whenever I make them materialistic, so I feel that their chasing to me is less.
McEVERS: That's why we need to make art, Khalil says. Even if it gets you in trouble or it doesn't sell, it helps relieve the burden.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.
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