Ashes to Art: The Iraqi Phoenix will be on display at the Pomegranate Gallery from 19 January through 22 February. The exhibitition concentrates on subject matter from the most recent chapter of Iraq's history, beginning with the March 2003 bombing of Baghdad.

Artist Qasim Sabti, who graduated from the academy in 1980, wrote in his statement for the exhibitition: "The morning after that first sleepless night, I went to check on a place most dear to me, the Academy of Fine Arts,"

He described entering the academy's library, which had been burned. Sabti turned books he refers to as "survivors" into collages by exposing and reapplying layers of their delicate bindings which are on show in the exhibitition.

Hana Malalla, the only woman among the 10 artists represented in the exhibitition, submitted the painting The Looting of the Museum of Art, which she created on wood that she cut, burned and painted.

Charred element

The exhibitition's curator, Peter Hastings Falk, points out that a charred element exists in nearly all works in the exhibition. "This is the aesthetic of the country," he said.

The idea for the exhibitition began when Falk, whose expertise is in American art, became intrigued with artist Isam Pasha after reading about the artist in an August 2003 article, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. "He was painting over a mural of Saddam," Falk said.

Iraqi artists are basking in their
new found freedom

Falk contacted the 29-year-old by email and told him about his idea of organising a show of Iraqi artists.

Pasha, a grandson of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said who was deposed and murdered in 1958, worked as a translator and language teacher, in addition to being a part of the Baghdad art scene. He helped Falk find an ethnically diverse group of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish artists for the exhibitition.

Artists in Iraq have long worked underground. Under Saddam's rule, artistic work was subject to official review. Regulations were relaxed in the 1990s, when officials were preoccupied by international sanctions, but the government began to tax the galleries. Some galleries went out of business while others just went underground.

Shackled art

"Art was growing its roots underneath the soil," Pasha said.
Sabti, the artist who salvaged books from the Academy of Fine Arts, founded the Hewar (Dialogue) Art Gallery in Baghdad in 1992, one of a few that would endure the renewed attention of Saddam. Sabti also serves as vice-president of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society, an organisation of artists with 1780 members.

"Ashes to Art: The Iraqi Phoenix" will be on display at New York's Pomegranate Gallery from 19 January through 22 February

However, Iraqi artists could not show their work internationally without government approval, said Nada Shabut, an assistant professor specialising in contemporary Iraqi art at the University of North Texas.

Uncensored work could only be found in places like Europe, where many exiled artists fled.

"The government had a strong monopoly over art," Shabut said in a phone interview.

Pasha recalled a time during Saddam's rule that he showed a friend a drawing he had done of an eagle falling. The friend suggested hiding the piece because the plummeting eagle "might be interpreted as a symbol of the republic" he explained.

Pasha, a self-taught artist who perfected his English by watching American movies, had sold his art to United Nations and aid workers during the 1990s embargo for around $200 for a piece. In New York, one rendering in melted wax of the bombing of Baghdad is currently listed for $2400 on Falk's website.

Shabut, the art professor, curated an October exhibitition of Iraqi contemporary art in Texas. She found that visitors were most surprised to find that modern art existed in Iraq, and she partially blames the lack of exposure on regional stereotypes.

"It's easier to think of Iraq as the cradle of civilisation," Shabut said.

Pasha plans to return to Baghdad eventually, and says he is optimistic about the outcome of the war. But when asked about the recent violence, including a suicide bombing that killed more than 130 people, Pasha pauses and strokes his beard. "It does not look promising," he said.