Syria: Iraqi artists, now refugees, struggle to pursue art in exile

Frederick Deknatel
Iraqi artist Alaa Ismael paints in his Damascus apartment.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

To support his art in Baghdad, Alaa Ismael opened an interior-design office in a commercial area near his house. But after the American invasion, customers dwindled as checkpoints choked the city.

In 2004, his office was burned and robbed by extremists. “They killed everyone, not only artists,” he said. “Jihadis would threaten us, calling us ‘kafirs’ [unbelievers] because of our art, because of the style or subject of our work.” While he was never threatened personally, “threats were all around.”

So Mr. Ismael left with his wife, sister, and nephews for Syria, where he has been for the past five years. He quickly shakes his head when asked about going back. His oldest daughter was an infant when they left Iraq; his second daughter was born here this year.

They all share the same apartment in a ramshackle hillside neighborhood overlooking Damascus. One of its rooms is his studio, where large finished canvases and rolled-up paintings are stacked, unsold.

Ismael is one of dozens of Iraqi refugee artists here, struggling to paint and sell his work to support himself and his family and maintain a semblance of his former life in Baghdad.

“Before the war, Baghdad was the cultural and artistic center,” Ismael said. “There were galleries, art schools, universities. There was movement.”

For him, more opportunities in art exist abroad now – through friends and fellow artists in the Gulf and Europe – than in exile here in Syria.

“There are few galleries,” he says, “and with competition between Syrian and Iraqi artists, Syrians are always preferred. We want to show our pictures to the world, but the problem is always how to sell them.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency has supported many Iraqi artists with local exhibitions and other promotional projects in the past few years, and a handful of galleries in Damascus show Iraqi art. “But a Syrian artist is here in his own country, where everything is in his or her own place,” artist Omar Odeh explains. “We’re here from war.”

Mr. Odeh, who unlike Ismael travels occasionally to Baghdad where his family has returned, hopes the Iraqi government will use growing oil revenues to support displaced Iraqi artists. “Of course, it’s not the first thing our new government is thinking about after security and reconciliation. But if the government for me is like a parent, they should be the first one supporting you. You can trust in yourself if you have your nation,” he says.

Today Odeh works at a busy rate, his paintings hang in galleries in the Old City and even at the new Four Seasons hotel. “It’s not the rule, because some Iraqis succeed in Europe or America. It’s possible for an artist to succeed outside his home during war,” he says. “Look at Picasso and ‘Guernica.’ ”

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