Artists who only six months ago painted life size portraits of former President Saddam Hussein now have new patrons. They make their money by rendering the families and lovers of homesick American soldiers in oils.
“Overnight, I have gone from painting Saddam to painting Americans,” Ahmad al-Khazaali told the Wall Street Journal in an interview. “Did I ever imagine? Hah! Never!”
Khazaali is one of a swathe of Iraqi artists employed by Saddam to churn out hundreds of portraits with which to adorn shops, galleries, palaces and restaurants.
Khazaali earns $50 a picture and receives about 50 orders a week from his friend Dia Andros, shopkeeper and artists agent at Baghdad’s Rasheed Hotel.
Andros dreamt up the idea, when the Coalition Provisional Authority allowed him to open up his shop after the end of the war.
Initially he sold carpets and silver, though he turned his hand to new products after numerous US soldiers showed him pictures of distant loved ones.
“I said to them, ‘Why don’t you turn their picture into a portrait?’ “, Andros said. “We have many good artists in Iraq and now they have no business.”
He charges the troops between $100 and $150 a picture, paying the artist and keeping the remainder.
Mr Khazaali, a member of the Shia muslim majority often discriminated against under Saddam, was brought up in a working class family in Baghdad.
Though he didn’t have enough money to go to art college, he constantly sketched people as a youth.
Later, whilst in the army, he painted for commanders, earning time off and special privileges.
Though he is now no longer ideologically constrained, economic woes restrict most Iraqis from doing more than surviving.
“I was always under pressure to draw for Saddam, and now I have no money and I must draw Americans, otherwise I can’t feed my children,” Khazaali told the Wall Street Journal.