Iraqi Artists in Exile is the second museum-level exhibition of contemporary Iraqi Art in the United States. It follows the ground-breaking exhibition Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art, organized by Nada Shabout. It consists of thirteen artists who have been forced out of Iraq and two artists, the late Shakir Hassan Al-Said and Abdel Karim Khalil who lives in Baghdad. The artists in this exhibition are important because they are among the few remaining bearers of Iraqi culture who have survived the American onslaught.
Let us take serious notice of the fact that Baghdad was until recently one of the great cultural centers of the Near East. The arts have flourished there for seven thousand years. As a result of the U.S. war and occupation, the culture of Iraq has been severely damaged, if not virtually destroyed. The National Museum has been looted, the National Library has been burned, the Museum of Modern Art has been pillaged, and the universities and schools have been destroyed or ruined along with the book stores, art galleries and artists studios. Artists, poets, film makers, intellectuals, and professors have had their lives threatened and have been forced out of the country. Many of them have lost their life’s work. Nevertheless, these exiled artists have gone on to create new artworks that not only reflect the pain but also the collective creative imagination of the Iraqi people.
Iraqi contemporary artists connect the modern era to the ancient past, keeping Iraqi traditions alive and at the same time, they communicate their search for new ways to express their existence in a modern context as exiles from terrible wars. One of the artists, M. Al Shammarey explained, “It would be impossible to call yourself an artist if there is no reference to the war in your work. The war is the time you are living in.” In this way and because of the high quality of their art, Iraqi artists are making a unique and timely contribution to world culture.
Like Vietnam, Iraq will unsettle our personal and national conscience for years to come. Americans should feel ashamed, disgusted, and outraged by the United States government’s war against Iraq - a war justified by government lies that has not only consumed thousands of U.S. soldiers but also the lives of more than a million Iraqi civilians, mainly women and children. In addition to this horrific crime, the U.S. war and occupation are responsible for the wanton destruction of the cultural patrimony of the Iraqi people, for erasing their history, and for leaving them at the mercy of military and mercenary occupiers, corporate exploiters and common criminals.
Will the world ever forgive the United States for the genocide and destruction of Iraq?
James Harithas Director of Station Museum of Contemporary Art