Artist eyes Iraq's public canvases

To Esam al-Azzawy, Hussein's fall means space for images other than those of the former leader

On the blank walls and concrete pedestals of Baghdad, artist Esam Pasha al-Azzawy sees ripe opportunity.

These spaces, where Saddam Hussein's outsized and ubiquitous likenesses long loomed, should become the places for a new kind of expression - art for art's sake, Mr. Azzawy says.

"It's so inviting. It's so tempting," he says wistfully, eyeing a 10-foot-square wall near his house in the Palestine district of Baghdad, where Hussein's portrait has been licked away by flames. "Believe me, there are more spaces in this city than any artist can take."

Like all Iraqis, Mr. Azzawy has been cut loose from restraints that lasted an entire generation. The result is a giddy sense of change that, for the artist, found its first expression in a canvas he painted as US bombs fell on Baghdad.

Alone in his cramped studio, Azzawy drowned out the shuddering and explosions with Mozart's "Requiem" in the mornings, and Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto in the afternoons, played over and over.

"It was me, my colors, and my music," says the thickly bearded painter, who jokes about his resemblance to the former Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar.

In two intense, eight-hour sessions, just hours before American forces entered the Iraqi capital, he finished what he considers his masterpiece from those days of war - "Baghdad," an image of a woman in deep reds and dark hues.

It is an expression of the spirit, the potential, and the uncertainty in the city Azzawy so loves.

"She's like the everlasting immortal queen that is standing alone in an empty space," says Azzawy, as he pulls the painting from a stack of canvases and perches it on his easel. "Her face remains unknown, like Baghdad," he explains in English honed by watching American films. "It represents my sorrow at seeing Baghdad fall so easily, and happiness that Baghdad was not harmed so much."

But before any public art projects are launched from Azzawy's studio, he says he has to get used to the presence of American troops in the neighborhood.

"It was a bit hard to believe that the soldiers you see in the movies are just down the street," says the painter, who struck up a conversation with some soldiers while buying bread, and found them "gentle" because "we [Iraqis] were gentle with them" when they arrived.

"They looked friendly. They even called me 'sir," Azzawy says, surprised. "We are not used to that."

Echoing many Iraqis, Azzawy expresses gratitude to US forces for toppling the dictator, but warns that future rule should be left to Iraqis. "Friend or not, [US troops] should keep away from governing Iraq," he says.

"Humans are afraid of the unknown," Azzawy muses. "I'm always optimistic, so I have hope. But hoping is not enough. We must act, and take it [government] out of the hands of the Americans before it is too late."

The artists says that, being apolitical, he never had difficulty with the former regime. In fact, Azzawy - who is also a former Iraqi national judo champion - served as a soldier on the "active" northern front, fighting Kurdish militiamen in the late 1990s. But he rarely could welcome foreign visitors to his studio in the past without raising official eyebrows. And he always chafed at the restrictions. After an earlier meeting with me , just for a chat, he was pulled aside by a government minder and told that it was illegal to talk to foreigners.

With Hussein gone and the bombing over, Azzawy emerged from his studio to rejoin his friends at the newly reopened Shabandar Cafe. The new freedom, he said, felt like "my first time in the outside world."

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