Iraqi artists depict anger over Abu Ghraib

Twenty-five artists are displaying sculptures, paintings, and installations at a Baghdad gallery.

If one image symbolized the US-led coalition's victory over Saddam Hussein it wasthe toppling of the dictator's statue in central Baghdad last April. Yet that signal moment has been replaced by a simpler motif - a man wearing a ragged cloak, his head covered by a bag and his arms outstretched in an terrible, but unintended, parody of Jesus' suffering on the cross.

That image of a detainee at the US-run prison at Abu Ghraib on the western edge of Baghdad has come to symbolize for many Iraqis how the dream of liberation and self-determination has turned into the nightmare of occupation and violence.

The abuse at Abu Ghraib generated intense rage and calls for revenge throughout Iraq and much of the Arab world. But a handful of Iraqis have forsaken the passion of street protests and demonstrations and instead channeled their anger into producing works of art, a creative protest of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

"It is our duty as artists to feel what our countrymen are feeling and suffering," says Qasim Alsabti, the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Union of Artists.

Mr. Alsabti was one of 25 Iraqi artists who have produced a series of sculptures, paintings, and installations depicting the horrors of Abu Ghraib. The exhibits are being shown at the Hewar Art Gallery in the Wazerieh district of central Baghdad.

He created a life-size figure of a woman wrapped in a bloodstained white shroud. It symbolizes the rape of women detainees in Abu Ghraib, says Alsabti, who heard of allegations of women prisoners being raped at Abu Ghraib five months before the scandal broke.

"There was a letter circulating in Fallujah from a woman inside Abu Ghraib," he says. "She was begging the resistance to bomb Abu Ghraib and bring down the walls on their heads so that their suffering would end. I felt like screaming when I heard this. I wanted to draw the attention of the American people."

The US military is in the process of releasing prisoners from Abu Ghraib in periodic batches with the aim of reducing the number of detainees to 2,000. Another 585 prisoners were released Monday. The inmates were driven out of the prison in three buses through a crowd of waiting relatives.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the number of detainees at the prison had fallen to 3,291 from 6,527 in March.

The US military plans to hold 4,000 to 5,000 detainees by the time sovereignty is transferred from the coalition to an Iraqi interim government on June 30. They will be held at Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr in the south and Camp Redemption at Abu Ghraib.

There are no plans by the new government to demolish the facility, despite a pledge by President George W. Bush to tear the prison down. Ghazi al-Yawar, the new president, said that the prison had cost $100 million and should not be wasted.

"We need every single dollar we have in order to rebuild our country instead of demolishing and rebuilding" he said.

But for many Iraqis, including artists like Alsabti, Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with what they see as the injustices of the occupation.

"It's like an adviser from Saddam Hussei's regime has come back to Iraq and is now advising the Americans," he says.

The Hewar gallery is a popular meeting place for artists and intellectuals, a place for them to sit shaded from the fierce noon heat by leafy trees, smoke cigarettes, and sip scalding glasses of tea.

The leitmotif of the Abu Ghraib pieces of art is the hooded detainee. One artistic rendition is a torso and hooded head made of white plaster, splattered with red paint to simulate blood. Another structure of polystyrene and plaster depicts manacled feet and hands. Another is a thin human figure made from a single length of linked chain.

Perhaps the most striking exhibits are the three sculptures by Abdel-Karim Khalil, a professional artist for 22 years. One of them is a foot-high rendition of the classic hooded figure with his arms outstretched. The other two are carved from blocks of yellow-veined marble.

"It took me about 10 days to carve it," Mr. Khalil says.

He says that many artists have found creative inspiration not just in the abuses at Abu Ghraib but also the general rigors of living under military occupation.

"Some artists used to be neutral, but now there are artists, poets, and writers who have all reached the decision that the Americans are destroyers. It has given them a new sense of purpose in art," he says.

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