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Iraq and the art of war

Iraqi artists Dia al-Azzawi and Mahmoud Obaidi discuss the ongoing conflict and destruction in their homeland.

As Iraqi forces fight an all-out battle to reclaim Mosul, taken by ISIL in 2014, we speak to two of Iraq’s most distinguished artists about the ongoing bloodshed and destruction in the country, home to what is considered one of the oldest civilisations. 

We spoke to Dia al-Azzawi and Mahmoud Obaidi in Doha, Qatar, where their work is currently being exhibited.

Dia al-Azzawi was a key figure the art scene in Iraq in the late 1960s and early 1970s and moved to London in 1976. His exhibition at the Al Riwaq Gallery in Doha showcases a retrospective of more than 500 works that revisit art and narratives that have defined and redefined the Middle East.


by ”Dia

is from a generation which is maybe the last generation to be creative. Even with this generation, everyone is now living in different parts of either the United States or Sweden, and to work together again is not something easy for them, to rebuild their friendship, their creativity as a group, this is very difficult.”]

The Iraqi-Canadian artist Mahmoud Obaidi, who was born in Baghdad in 1966, left Iraq in 1991.

In his exhibition “Fragments”, Obaidi explores the destruction of Iraq, a 7,000-year-old civilisation, after the 2003 invasion, through sculptural recreations of Baghdadi artefacts and symbols which have been looted or destroyed.

Both artists give us a tour of their exhibitions in Doha and speak to us about their work. 

“As an Iraqi, I cannot find an easy way to express my feeling because for me Iraq is not just a land, with a flag and a national anthem,” Azzawi says. 

“This is a country, which my inner soul, which kept me working all these years, sharing the dream with its people to build the country, in a creative way.”

This dream’s collapse, he says, started with the imposition of sanctions in the early 1990s, and the destruction of the fabric of Iraqi society as sectarianism took hold. He says Iraq hasn’t only collapsed but it has “no future”.

Azzawi says being in London allows him, in many ways, to access more information than people who live in Iraq, and that he feels he has a commitment to document his country through art because of the family and friends who remain there.

Azzawi’s retrospective opened in Doha the day the offensive to retake Mosul began. In the early 1970s, he lived there for two years, supervising the start of a new archaeological museum in Mosul, which he said contained artefacts from Hatra – the only archaeological site in the country excavated by an all-Iraqi team, without the involvement of any foreigners.

“The destruction of these pieces means that unique pieces disappeared. We don’t have any of these now, only maybe if they rebuild [them] in a way – which more likely they cannot do,” Azzawi says.

“The war of Mosul, for me is like just one of the layers of destruction of Iraq,” says Obaidi.

Since 2003, it’s been war after war, he says, and that he has little optimism for where his country is headed. He explains that he always uses rusty materials in his art because that’s “how I see Iraq now”. He says he tries to make art that “reflects what’s happening in my country”.

Obaidi tells us about one work depicting the statue of liberty with a rope extending from the top of the sculpture’s head and into a wall.

“The rope is showing you the relationship between the first year of the invasion, the first moment of the invasion, to the second year, third year and all these 13 years. The rope is the storytelling of the invasion of Iraq, or destruction of Iraq,” Obaidi says.

One of the most iconic moments – at least as far as symbolism is concerned – happened five years after the invasion of Iraq when US President George W Bush visited the country and, during a speech, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at him. Obaidi has paid homage to this event with a sculpture of Bush surrounded by a circle of shoes.

Azzawi believes “the tragedy of Iraq” began with the war with Iran (1980-88) and with Saddam Hussein, while Obaidi points to 2003 as the point of no return, the beginning of Iraq’s cultural destruction.

“The tragedy was also created by a politician who [has] no sense of what’s going on outside the country,” Azzawi says. “Any politician has to have a moral responsibility when he takes a decision. You cannot take the whole country just because you want to do something. This is what makes me really upset. That how on earth a party which [had] all the elements to be successful, to create a fantastic country … suddenly everything collapsed.”

Azzawi believes Iraqi artists and intellectuals also have a moral responsibility. He likens documenting and responding to what happens in Iraq through art as the only way to defend his country and family.

“But then, you cannot be neutral. You cannot just be passing by. This is the main problem, I mean I’m trying to see the Iraqi art as a movement from outside, I feel there’s a lot of lack of that kind of responsibility. People, they did not feel their country collapsing day by day,” he says.

“And for example Mahmoud [Obaidi] is from a generation, which is maybe the last generation to be creative. Even with this generation, everyone is now living in different parts of either the US or Sweden and to work together again is not something easy for them, to rebuild their friendship, their creativity as a group, this is very difficult.” 

Azzawi explains that many young Iraqi artists living abroad have to contend first with getting by in a new country, before they can turn to art.

We ask the artists if they feel their art can make a difference.

“I felt maybe I create an atmosphere so negative in a sense for the future, it makes people who are really sincere from inside to express their hopeless case … Two women came to the exhibition, [and] they were talking absolutely the same way: ‘Why you did all this? Why you don’t give us hope?’ I said: ‘What hope can I give you? This is what I can do, not more than that,'” Azzawi says.

“I feel like it’s a kind of commitment to document this,” Obaidi says. “So now it’s a kind of relief for me to do this. I didn’t think of how much effect it would [have] on the society, but for me, it’s a relief. I have to do it.”

Azzawi says: “We cannot just stop working. I think if you are faithful to Iraq, you should keep yourself as creative, challenging yourself and creating something make other people jealous. This is the only way.”

We would like to thank Qatar Museums and Katara Cultural Village for the use of their facilities.

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