Iraq’s artists display war trauma in work

Feeling resentment, they showcase emotions in art

Iraqi painter Muayad Muhsin gestures shows off a painting in his studio in Baghdad. Many of Iraq's artists are using their work to process the turmoil since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, revealing a profound anger over their country's traumas and uncertainty of its future. (Associated Press)Iraqi painter Muayad Muhsin gestures shows off a painting in his studio in Baghdad. Many of Iraq’s artists are using their work to process the turmoil since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, revealing a profound anger over their country’s traumas and uncertainty of its future. (Associated Press)

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s artists are using their work to try to process the turmoil since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and what they are producing shows a profound anger over their country’s traumas and uncertainty over its future.

They have a lot to deal with: A change of regime, foreign occupation, an insurgency, sectarian massacres and, now, the prospect of a divided nation left by the Americans in the hands of unpopular politicians, unprepared security forces and a fragile democracy.

The ambivalence is clear.

Many of the artists lament Saddam Hussein’s ouster, but don’t wish to see one day of his rule come back. They are grateful to America for having rid them of his tyranny, but they vilify it as a foreign occupier. The majority Shiites see justice in their post-Saddam empowerment after decades of oppression, but say their own politicians are ruining the country.

“The Iraqi people are victimized by everything and everyone,” says Fadel Saddam, who directs short films. “They are victimized by both the ruler and the foreign occupier.”

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Muayad Muhsin is venting while he paints.

“What we need in Iraq is a ruler who shares Saddam’s tyranny, but who fights oppression and corruption, and champions the poor,” he barked in one of several outbursts to an Associated Press reporter as he worked on his latest canvas.

It was another of the all-too-frequent 110-degree days when electricity is out and fans and air-conditioning units sit useless. Mr. Muhsin’s stuffy apartment was covered in dust from the previous day’s sandstorm, and the heavyset Mr. Muhsin, in shorts and a T-shirt, repeatedly wiped the sweat off his face.

The merciless heat is even enshrined in his work. On the back of one canvas is written: “Painted in 48 Celsius [118 Fahrenheit] in the shade while the power is continuously out in the summer of Iraq.”

Like many Iraqis, the 47-year-old Mr. Muhsin is filled with anger and feelings of betrayal. He blames everyone and everything for Iraq’s current predicament.

The work in progress depicts a man standing desolately by the side of a road that bends until it disappears into a burning, apocalyptic orange sunset. The man is headless, holding in his left hand an oud, the Middle Eastern lute-like instrument that holds a cherished place in Iraqi culture.

In place of the man’s head is a streetlight pole.

“He is screaming, How long will we stand still like light poles on deserted roads?” explained Mr. Muhsin. “The sunset gives the impression of the end of the world, the end of a conflict, a horizon that promises new — but not necessarily good — things.”

Mr. Muhsin hauls other paintings from a storeroom. One also shows a headless man standing by a railway that abruptly ends behind him. His body is cracking, as if about to crumble. In the background are the famed ruins of Babylon.

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