NEW YORK – Tattered book covers salvaged from the Iraqi Academy of Fine Arts and wax sketches of U.S. bombs blowing up Baghdad are going on exhibit in New York this month in a rare U.S. exhibition of Iraqi artists.
"Ashes to Art: The Iraqi Phoenix" reflects the turbulence in the nation since the March 2003 bombing of Baghdad.
The flames referred to in the title were the reality of those closest to the attack, and nearly all the works include a charred element, said Peter Hastings Falk, curator of the show at SoHo's Pomegranate Gallery, running Jan. 19 to Feb. 22.
"This is the aesthetic of the country," Falk said.
Artist Qasim Sabti returned to his alma mater, the Academy of Fine Arts, the morning after the bombing and found the school's library burned. He used the books, which he calls "survivors," to make collages -- exposing and reapplying layers of their delicate bindings.
Hana Malallah, the lone woman among the 10 artists represented in the exhibit, painted "The Looting of the Museum of Art" on wood that she burned.
Falk had the idea for the exhibit shortly after the U.S. invasion when he read about artist Esam Pasha, who was painting over a mural of Saddam Hussein. Pasha helped him find an ethnically diverse group of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish artists for the New York exhibit.
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 galleries, driving some underground and others out of business.
"Art was growing its roots underneath the soil," said Pasha, 29, a grandson of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, who was deposed and killed in 1958.
Iraqi artists couldn't show their work internationally without government approval, said Nada Shabout, an assistant professor specializing in contemporary Iraqi art at the University of North Texas.
"The government had a strong monopoly over art," Shabout said.
Pasha recalled a drawing of an eagle falling that he made during Saddam's rule. A friend suggested he hide the piece because the plummeting eagle "might be interpreted as a symbol of the republic," he said.
The self-taught artist sold his art to United Nations and aid workers during the 1990s embargo for around $200 per piece. In New York, one rendering in melted wax of the bombing of Baghdad is listed for $2,400.
Pasha plans to return to Baghdad eventually and says he is optimistic about the outcome of the war. But when asked about recent violence, including a suicide bombing that killed more than 130 people, he pauses.
"It does not look promising," he said.