Historiographic Invisibilities: The Case of Contemporary Iraqi Art
Since the so called "fall of Baghdad" and since Iraq has become a permanent topic in our daily news, I have come across few articles in the print media about contemporary Iraqi art and artists. Optimistically, I consider this a progress. It is about time that "Third World" countries are allowed a contemporary self-expression. Nevertheless, it is still too little. While the entire world protested the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and the destruction of its content of ancient heritage, there was no mention in the media and very little discussion else where about Markaz Saddam lil-Funun, the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art, and its horrid fate. In fact, in these few articles I mentioned, there is a genuine element of surprise and confusion about how to define or evaluate this contemporary Iraqi art production. Is it simply a problem of classification and definition, or is it one that transcends beyond the simple? What is the reason behind the absence of modern Arab art from the international scene, particularly at this age of global communications? One could argue that it is in fact symptomatic of a larger problem in relation to the status and meaning of the modern production of visual representations in the region as a whole. Is it, however, a misunderstanding of the aesthetic transformation of the twentieth century and the role of visual iconography in transforming modern Arab cultures, and in this case modern Iraqi culture, or is it a continuation of Western cultural superiority and Orientalism. Is the rhetoric of "our humanity's heritage" appropriate for ancient art only? Does the West's concern with ancient Mesopotamia and its archaeological artifacts in Iraq pertain to its claim that this history is the root of its civilization? And modern history, on the other hand, is the concern of its own people only? This paper will explore the logic and various issues behind art history's disregard of Modern Arab art. It will debate questions of why art history books end their discussion of Islamic art around the 17th century, and what happened in the 3 centuries that followed? With Iraq as the case in hand, it will examine possible related socio-political issues to the exclusion of its art, such as orientalism, colonialism, identity and Western hegemony. National identity of Iraq, in light of current debates of its validity as a nation-state becomes pivotal. Finally, through discussion of a number of examples, it will outline the aesthetic transformation during the 20th century, and will attempt to define modern Iraqi art.
Keywords: Contemporary Iraqi art, Orientalism and globalization, Post colonial cultural identities
Dr Nada Shabout
Assistant Professor of Art History, School of Visual Arts, University of North Texas