Art Sales to Benefit Iraqi Artists "Oil on Landscape" is the name of an art exhibit that's just opened at the Pomegranate Gallery in New York. The artworks — which didn't exactly get to the U.S. through the proper channels — come from a country whose people know all about oil — Iraq. They were shipped out by a former U.S. Navy officer in hopes of selling them, so he could send the money back to the impoverished artists.

Art Sales to Benefit Iraqi Artists

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It's not unusual to think about oil when you think about Iraq, but how about oil on landscape? That's the title of an unusual art show in New York City. All of the paintings are by Iraqis, nearly all of them living in Baghdad. It's a big deal for them to be involved in a New York exhibition, but they're also afraid of attention the show may bring.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: One day, Christopher Brownfield was looking for a tie in Baghdad's Green zone. The former submarine officer and military liaison walked into a small store that sold knockoff clothing and souvenirs. In the back, he spotted some rugs and what he called some really bad art - Laurence-of-Arabia type desert views. Next to those were some canvases turned against the wall.

CHRISTOPHER BROWNFIELD: There were these crude images of children holding up balloons, but there were juxtaposed with newspaper articles in Arabic about suicide bombing or about bickering parliamentarians. It was clear to me there was a really strong undercurrent of politically charged, socially charged art that was hidden from the public field.

ADLER: At first, the shopkeepers were suspicious of a military officer wearing camouflage and carrying a loaded weapon. But he kept going back and over a month or so, he talked about art, found the shopkeepers knew a surprising amount, and slowly he began to meet a few artists. Most of them, he says, are eking out a living doing other jobs, and art supplies are scarce.

BROWNFIELD: In a lot of the Iraqi canvases I brought back, there is very little paint. In some places, half the canvas is bereft of paint because they can't afford it.

ADLER: Still, an artist who uses the name Sadik(ph) managed with pen and charcoal to create finely drawn pictures of Iraqi women that seem almost like photographs. There are paintings of fallen power lines that are very abstract. None of the artists currently living in Iraq were able to attend the opening reception at the Pomegranate Gallery in Soho, but the first two collages that Christopher Brownfield saw in that Baghdad shop are hanging on the wall.

Brownfield says the artist, Muhammad Hamdenhi(ph), got his children to draw the stick figures.

BROWNFIELD: He asked for a little bit of help from his family in order to make it a discourse on what it's like to grow up in Iraq during the 2006 insurgency.

ADLER: We reached Hamdenhi by cell phone in Baghdad. The translator is Simon Samuel, a Near East expert at Yale University. Hamdenhi says he has been painting for 15 years. He says his work used to be about Iraqi civilization.

MUHAMMAD HAMDENHI: (speaking foreign language)

SIMON SAMOEIL: After the occupation, I started painting in red and in black, because red, it is like the blood, and black shows the sadness that we are going through in Iraq.

When I paint the water or when I paint the sea or river, I'm not sitting front of the sea or the river. I am doing that from myself, to express the situation that we are living in.

ADLER: Because of the security situation, Hamdani has to paint most of his scenes from memory. Many of these artists are fearful of being seen as collaborators. In fact, Brownfield couldn't meet directly with most of them and had to rely on a liaison, who he will not name. The liaison would go to the Red Zone, meet with the artists, and get them to lend Brownfield their work. Brownfield began to send Iraqi paintings to the United States through the post office with the idea that he would mount an exhibition to break down cultural barriers. He wanted to sell the paintings so he could send the money back to the artists.

BROWNFIELD: I was wondering, is this legal for me to do it? Would it be considered looting?

ADLER: It turned out to be legal, but the post office gave him grief on sending other people's property through the mail, and he confesses he lied on customs forms.

BROWNFIELD: I don't regret my decision, but I'm not proud of having to lie to get these paintings here, either.

ADLER: Brownfield brought about 100 works to the United States. Some 50 of them are on display at the gallery. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Muhammad Hamdani's "Night of Fire." Hamdani is the brother of a former official who was murdered by Saddam Hussein when the dictator consolidated power in 1979. Hamdani welcomed the United States as the country that liberated him from the oppression of his brother's killer, and yet the 25 panels of "Night of Fire" portray the American shock and awe campaign as a scene of chaos, bloodshed and ambivalence.

BROWNFIELD: It shows these people glued to the windows, watching as the bombs are falling in the city. Some of the buildings are on fire. Some of the people are dying. In this central piece in particular, it shows the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdos Square, and there's a crowd of onlookers who are cheering. And the artist has described them as monkeys because he claims they also clapped when the statue went up. It shows that you can't just neatly depose a dictator and make everybody magically better off. There's a real messy element to this sort of action.

ADLER: Brownfield says that until he saw the paintings, he had never really come to grips with the consequences of U.S. actions.

BROWNFIELD: Learning from these artists was probably the most important thing that I could have done to understand what it means to be an Iraqi. If you look at these canvases, you will see the Iraqi perspective on shock and awe. You will see the Iraqi perspective on what it's like to raise a family in the midst of an insurgency. Those are complicated things.

ADLER: He says people ask him all the time, did you support the occupation? He says, remember, I was living on a submarine, looking at the world through a rose-colored periscope. If you really look at these paintings, he says, you will understand some of the changes I went through from the time I was on that submarine to curating this exhibition.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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