American curator Peter Hastings Falk got the idea for an exhibit of post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi art when he saw a photograph of a painting over a mural of the deposed dictator in Baghdad. "My first thought was, 'This guy's got guts'," he says. "I have to contact [him]." The "guy'" was Esam Pasha, a Baghdad-based artist whose works are now featured in "Ashes to Art: The Iraqi Phoenix" at the Pomegranate Gallery in New York City through Feb. 22. After two years of e-mail between Falk and Esam, a collective of 10 Iraqi artists called The Iraqi Phoenix was formed early last year. Now, five of those artists are having the debut of their work in the new show.
In artistic circles, Iraq may be most famous for its classical art and antiquities, but wandering through "Ashes to Art," one realizes that these modern works are historical documents, too. Each artist has a unique style of historical presentation. In one of Nazar Yahya's untitled canvases, brown shades smother black silhouettes of buildings like bomb dust while orange blotches of fire contribute to the chaos. But glimmers of gray and white peek through, perhaps signifying that within all the destruction lies hope for the future.
Or perhaps not. None of the artists "wanted this to be a political thing," says Falk. But it's impossible to avoid trying to decipher the underlying truths of the brushstrokes, just as a layman might try to read between the lines of news dispatches from the war zone. Hana Malallah's "The Looting of the Museum of Art"--painted on wood that she cut and burned herself--is so vivid one can imagine the smell of the charred body that peers out from the destruction, and even empathize with the silhouettes that surely represent mourning women.
Some of the works also depict the postinvasion struggle to respect Iraq's rich cultural history while instituting American-style modernity, none with greater effect than Qasim Sabti's collection of collages made from burned book jackets that he salvaged from the Academy of Fine Arts. The jackets, some painted in colors ranging from tranquil turquoise to deathly black, once covered books from as far away as France and the United States, emphasizing Iraq's academic history as well as its historical cultural openness. Most of the collages refrain from any explicit political message, but one makes up for the silence. Painted in shades of black to resemble an urban landscape in the midst of a bombing attack, it bears the title "Desecration," which appears to be from the book "Desecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne," from the evangelical "Left Behind" series.
Of course, current events, history and art are always seen from different perspectives. For example, the bronze cast sculptures of Oded Halahmy, an Iraqi currently living in New York who helped put together the exhibit, show a longing for peace in his country. But their stability and structure reveal his distance from the chaotic reality, and actually evoke the order imposed under the iron-fisted rule of Saddam. And his palm tree forms in "My Homeland Is a Memory" and "Imagining Peace" make one think of a sugarcoated postcard an Iraqi expat might receive from a relative: "Baghdad fell. We are fine. All will be OK ...Inshallah [God willing]."
It is Esam Pasha--the man who painted over Saddam's mural--who best captures the truth about Iraq today. His "Tears of Wax" sketches display chaos through feverish strokes of every color imaginable; a serene work of bright green, purple, pink and yellow hangs to the left of a piece raging with hues like red, orange and blue. Once again, perspective comes into play: if one reads into them from left to right--as one would in English--one might see a transition from a peaceful springtime to a foreboding fall. Approaching them from right to left, as an Iraqi would an Arabic text, portrays a more optimistic opposite. Puzzling as it is, it is just this ambiguity that makes Pasha's works so truthful.
Consider three of his larger oil-on-canvas paintings, hanging on the gallery walls in sequence. Walking past the "Emerging Phoenix," which depicts a powerful blue bird rising up beside the flames, one can't help thinking of the American eagle. The next painting, "The Caged Eagle," suggests that the thought was not a coincidence. The bird, this time looking more like a vulture, is seemingly harnessed by a quagmire of colors below and further hampered by what appears to be an arrow through its head. The last in the sequence: "The Vulture." This time, the bird is clearly what the artist proclaims it to be. And with the jagged edges of its outspread wings threatening to come down and destroy everything below it, one can't help thinking of the grim reaper hovering over Baghdad--and indeed, the whole of Iraq.
How one chooses to interpret the art, of course, is a matter of opinion. Falk himself feels the works "are clear physical evidence of the beauty that's coming out of chaos," whereas Halahmy says "it's chaotic, but there's a beauty and a harmony." Perhaps most important, Halahmy says, Iraqi artists are finally "free in their creativity." With democracy otherwise progressing at a crawl, that counts for something.