Bigger picture - Issue 159 - Magazine | Monocle

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Traffic guard directing cars around a mural of German sociologist Max Weber in Baghdad’s Waziriyah neighbourhood


Scottish-Iraqi artist Haneen Hadiy

For decades much of the world has perceived Baghdad as little more than the backdrop for endless wars. But a new dawn is breaking over the ancient capital once known as the City of Peace. The 2019 Tishreen protest movement didn’t just empower young Iraqis to demand their rights from a failing government; it allowed them to meet, talk and develop networks that have fostered a new kind of growth across the country. As the city finds increased security and stability, and money flows into the country, there’s a renewed space – and market – for the pursuit of the arts. 

That energy can be observed at The Station. This venue in the Karada neighbourhood started life as a co-working space but last year it expanded into the arts by opening the Creative Space. “The creative sector has been very neglected after all we’ve been through in the past 20 years,” says creative director Fahad Aldori. “We wanted to reactivate the arts community and bring back the beauty and the cultural identity of this country.” Like many working in the space, Aldori is a self-taught artist who found his passion after studying something more traditional – in his case, engineering. Softly spoken with long, wavy black hair pulled back in a ponytail and a monochrome dress code, Aldori has a warm smile ready for anyone who walks through the door and spends his days running from studio to studio supporting The Station’s young creators.


Wijdan al Majid’s mural of Yazidi survivor and activist Nadia Murad


The Gallery’s curator, Riyadh Ghenea


Nabil Ali in front of one of his works

Walking into the lofty steel structure, designed to resemble a cross between a warehouse and a shipping container, feels like entering a hive: inventors, entrepreneurs and intellectuals are hard at work everywhere. The Station’s creative wing contains studios and an exhibition space that’s constantly busy with classes, shows and talks to nurture young artists developing outside the confines of Baghdad’s traditional Academy of Fine Arts. Abstract paintings and intricate mosaic murals adorn the walls. “Artists in Baghdad have the talent and the ambition but they need proper space and opportunities,” says Aldori. Run on a non-profit, self-sustaining model, The Station provides tutorials, mentorship and studios to up-and-comers who would otherwise struggle to find the help they need to build careers. 

One of the artists who has found the support at The Station is Mena Haddad. Until a few years ago, the diminutive 26-year-old doctor had a secret. Every night when she got home from university, she needed a way to express her feelings about the tumult in the country around her, so she turned to collage art. Her bold prints that speak of the suffocation of Iraqi women’s bodies, voices and rights soon gathered a devout following, so she gained the confidence to exhibit her work at The Station’s show for new artists last year. Her subject matter might be tough – many of her works deal with domestic violence – but she has a positive outlook on art’s potential to make a difference. “Women are becoming artists, actors, film-makers, photographers,” she says. “We’ve been through so much and we have to let it out. A lot of it is coming out as art.”


Artist Noor Ali Jaber


Entrance to The Gallery

For some artists, the creative boom is helping to find independence not just in emotional expression but finances too. Noor Ali Jaber came to art late. But the chic 27-year-old, showing off the modern side of Baghdad fashion in a neatly cut indigo shift dress and turquoise glasses, says that “the love of the handmade” was always in her. As a child, her grandfather taught her traditional carpet weaving. After getting married and having a child in her conservative community, she longed for a creative outlet. Classes at The Station gave her the skills necessary to make her art her profession. “My friends here are so open-minded and supportive,” she says, with a radiant smile. “Spaces like this give us the opportunity to show what young people in Iraq are capable of. Art is necessary for life; we need beauty.” 

In just two years, Jaber has created a successful business, most recently selling two major mosaic bird sculptures – after learning the ancient Sumerian skill in a workshop – to a buyer in the US and being commissioned by the new branch of Baghdad’s trendiest coffee shop, Ridha Alwan, to design their sign and wall hangings. As we congratulate her on her recent sale, Jaber’s hazel eyes sparkle. “I’m so proud of myself,” she says. 

In just two years, Jaber has created a successful business, most recently selling two major mosaic bird sculptures – after learning the ancient Sumerian skill in a workshop – to a buyer in the US and being commissioned by the new branch of Baghdad’s trendiest coffee shop, Ridha Alwan, to design their sign and wall hangings. As we congratulate her on her recent sale, Jaber’s hazel eyes sparkle. “I’m so proud of myself,” she says. 

“There’s so much potential, hope and dedication in the arts community here; it made me feel really emotional,” she says. “It made me realise that there are so many more opportunities in Scotland and yet there isn’t the same amount of optimism as there is in Iraq.” After an initial meeting, Hadiy was invited to put on a personal exhibition at The Station’s creative space: the show quickly became a hit with crowds of stylish young Baghdadis brimming with questions and keen to engage. 

Through an exploration of home, belonging and loss, examining the connections between the Scottish Highlands and her Iraqi motherland – “the meeting points that make up me” – Haneen has found new inspiration. Now, she is sure that Iraq is where she wants to practise. “I’ve never felt so connected and at peace with myself as when I’m in Iraq,” she says. “The thought of being an artist here fills me with so much happiness. I have this huge spark of motivation because of the people I’m surrounded by. I’m constantly thinking, researching, discussing. You learn so much during one conversation. That’s why I see my future here.”


Art dealer Haider Hashem el Mussawi


Ghenea and The Gallery’s chief assistant Mais Algayyar

Renowned Iraqi artist Riyadh Ghenea embodies this expat trajectory. After leaving Iraq in the 1990s he studied and worked in Canada, building a name for himself as an artist of power and passion. But his home country always called and after 16 years it was time to return. In 2011, Ghenea returned to a Baghdad in chaos. Since then, he has created, taught and nurtured young artists. “People escaped but now they want to come back,” he says, readjusting his signature cravat under flowing black curls and an artfully waxed moustache. “Iraq is a surreal place; you can’t find this life anywhere else.” This spring, an exciting new opportunity to take his role a step further came up: he was offered the curatorship of a new exhibition space, The Gallery. Given a year of funding to allow artists to exhibit cost-free, the founders hope to build a strong commercial model in the long-term, attracting visitors and buyers to support the artists’ work. 

The whitewashed brick walls of this converted warehouse offer a blank canvas. Ghenea’s first move was to select a group of artists – both up-and-coming and established – to create a piece in a medium they don’t usually work in, for the first exhibition of its kind in Iraq. The result was a roaring success. Baghdadis were intrigued by the new experience. Diplomats, leading businessmen and even the prime minister came to see the show. “Audiences were not used to art beyond traditional oils. But they connected more with materials that they know but might not be used to seeing in art,” says Ghenea, adding that he has big plans for the future. “I want more spaces like this to open, audiences to continue to challenge themselves. We need more of a culture of teaching young people to think freely and to open their minds. Young artists are excited; whatever you think you can do, this space is open for you.” 

That’s why he’s working on an ambitious project, launched by gallery manager Arwa Alrawi: a large-scale exhibition of one of Iraq’s most famous artists, Fahar Al-Salih. As Ghenea and the gallery’s head assistant Mais Algayyar (also a recent returnee, who worked for years as a film-maker in Belgium) carefully unwrap the dozens of pieces shipped from Austria for a retrospective of his work, the excitement is palpable. “Fahar’s is such an important show – [it’s great] for young artists to be able to engage with such an established Iraqi artist who experiments with materials in a way that they’ve never seen before,” he says.


Murals in a market square


Artist Wijdan al Majid


Adnan Shakir, who runs a gym and café adjoining The Gallery

As Al-Salih arrives, exhausted from a late flight, he surveys his pieces spread out across the gallery. His work is laden with meaning: candid shots of Baghdadi life taken at the height of sectarian fighting; abstract shelters in different colours evoking the constant search of the refugee for a home; painted kitchen sponges varnished to look like expensive mosaics, imbued with an understanding of the cracks that lie beneath the surface of Arab society. “I hope that by next year I’ll be able to open an atelier here too,” adds Al-Salih. “Iraq is so full of ideas and inspiration, and I want to be part of the change that’s happening.” 

To sustain itself, of course, the art market needs money. Art dealer Haider Hashem el Mussawi has run a small showroom for “plastic arts” (as the visual arts are known in Iraq) in Karada for decades. He can see demand picking up as families start to earn well again amid the country’s fresh business boom and because of an uptick in construction, with buyers seeking large works to decorate their plush new homes. Foreign clients are increasing too: businessmen are flooding into the city and ngo workers and diplomats are given more freedom to roam the city and go shopping. “It’s hard for young artists to sell here but there’s hope that that will change as demand increases and buyers are looking for work outside the ordinary,” he says. 


Wijdan al Majid’s studio


The Al-Mutanabbi book market

As part of the visual arts’ push back into the public eye, some artists have taken to the streets. Baghdad has historically been a visual feast, a city intricately decorated for the public’s pleasure. The capital’s monumental sculptures are among the world’s most impressive; lofty mosaic gates on public parks hint at a grandeur gone by. But when the long stream of wars began, the focus turned to building cheap and fast, and art retreated inside, as a niche private experience for those with the time and money to afford it. 

Classically trained oil painter Wijdan al Majid came from the most traditional of Baghdad art backgrounds, the Academy of Fine Arts. Well-known for her ability to paint large canvases, she started decorating restaurants and living rooms to earn a living. But when the mayor of Baghdad wanted someone to bring art back to the streets, she was the obvious choice. For nearly a year, Wijdan spent every day climbing over the walls of traffic islands in Baghdad’s Waziriyah district to create a monumental project honouring great Iraqi and international minds. Thirty murals connect Iraqi creatives such as Zaha Hadid and Jawad Salim with foreign minds like Pablo Picasso and Max Weber. “I wanted to educate people about their heritage, about great Iraqis,” she says. At first Baghdadis were mistrustful of the project. But slowly, seeing a woman hard at work every day, she became famous and eventually beloved. Now people understand the importance of having living artworks on the streets. “It’s a move away from political graffiti, with a focus on bringing back the real beauty of Iraqi artwork,” says Al Majid. 

The murals were so successful that she then embarked on a city-funded project to recreate the art of legendary Iraqi artists across the walls of the busiest markets and thoroughfares, bringing battered buildings back to life. Next, she hopes to find a monumental canvas on which she can paint a piece of her own telling the story of Baghdad and its people. “After all we’ve been through, Baghdad is rising from the dust again, full of colours and life,” she says. “I want to add more beauty, vibrance and ideas to the streets.” 

In a nod to the growing power of creativity, for the first time in years the head of the arts section of the Ministry of Culture is actually a renowned painter rather than a politician. Sixty-eight-year-old Fakher Mohammad’s first move when he gained the position this year was to invite artists to display their work in the ministry, to make it a space that belonged to them again. 

“This city is alive with so much magic and it’s healing,” he says, his eyes clouding over with memories of Baghdad’s golden age. “It has suffered so much but there is still a taste of what was and what could be again. We have lived with death for so long. Now we’re looking forward to seeing our beautiful city living again.” 

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