MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
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: 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.
ABU AFNAN: 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.
AFNAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: He uses black, he uses colorful children, but in sort of a setting that looks sad or bleak.
BLOCK: 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.
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: 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.
MAHIR MOHAMMAD: They want us to say the government is good and the American is good, the policy now is good.
MCEVERS: 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.
KARIM SAIFOU: FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN
MCEVERS: Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Khalil's work was featured in a show in Texas. But he was denied a visa to the U.S.
ABDEL: It is a woman.
MCEVERS: Khalil says his pieces come from violent images he remembers from the war, images he can't get out of his head.
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: Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.
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