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DUBAI: Baghdad usually grabs headlines for the violence, political battles, ethnic and sectarian divisions and bloody geopolitics that have beleaguered Iraq for decades since the US invasion in 2003. In recent months, however, the capital seems to be experiencing an artistic renaissance, with new galleries, festivals, theatrical performances, the renovation of Al-Mutanabbi Street – the site of the city’s famous book market, and more.

The redesign of Al-Mutanabbi Street – revealed at the end of December – financed by private banks is perhaps the most obvious sign of regeneration. The street – named after the 10th century poet Abul Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi – has long been a gathering place for Iraqi cultural elites, since its inauguration in 1932 by King Faisal I. It was also the site of the huge movement youth-led anti-government protests in 2019, which led to a violent crackdown — protests that also led to the creation of more art.

Cultural artists and musicians came out to celebrate as colorful fireworks lit up the sky during the December unveiling of the new street. And while top-notch security surrounded the stage – reminding visitors of the country’s still-fragile state of corruption, poverty and violence – this new look and feel for the cultural heart of Iraq’s capital proves that the seeds of a cultural renaissance are here.

The graffiti mural reads “Humanity lives in the consciousness of paramedics,” 2019. (GettyImages)

“Because of everything going on in Iraq right now, I think it’s a great place for an artist to be inspired and explore by working in a variety of media,” said Amir Hazim, an Iraqi photographer based in Iraq. Baghdad, at Arab News. “However, since the invasion, many Iraqis do not see the importance of art and its ability to change the world. We have been taken away from art. We were distracted by the problems of our country.

Hazim recounts how the 2019 protests gave Iraqi artists a chance to engage more with the outside world and “rebuild our scene again”. His photographs of the protests were featured in “All I Want Is Life”, a group exhibition at Dubai-based Gulf Photo Plus in 2020.

Any sign of cultural growth in Iraq is inevitably reminiscent of Baghdad’s rich artistic history: the city was considered one of the cultural capitals of the world from the 7th to the 13th century CE during the Golden Age of Islam, and as an artistic center of the Middle East from the 1940s until the end of the 20th century. In the years following the 2003 invasion, however, many of its theaters, galleries and other cultural centers were destroyed.

“In 2003, all art institutions collapsed and almost all professional art teachers and established artists fled into exile, including myself in November 2006,” renowned Iraqi artist Henaa told Arab News. Mallah. “I call it a traumatized art scene. And now, after years of violence and isolation, the scene is more complicated and much weaker. There is a great need for serious research to better understand what has become of the Iraqi art scene.

The redesign of Al-Mutanabbi Street was unveiled at the end of December. (Provided)

Malallah is currently showing “Co-Existent Ruins: Exploring Iraq’s Mesopotamian Past through Contemporary Art”, at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery in London until March 19, an exhibition featuring the work of Iraqi artists Rayah Abd Al-Redah; Betoul Mahdey; Fatima Jawdat and Rozhgar Mustafa.

This is by no means the first attempt to revive the Iraqi capital. In 2013 Baghdad was named the Capital of Arab Culture, but most of the projects planned to mark the event were never completed, including the Al-Rasheed Theater in the central part of the city. But this time things look different, thanks to private initiatives and investments.

“People are tired of living in poverty. Art gives them hope,” says Ahmed Sabti, 32, a graphic designer and director of the Hewar Art Gallery, one of Baghdad’s oldest modern and contemporary galleries, opened in 1992 by Qasim Sabti, the father of Ahmed, artist and collector.

“Previous governments have always supported art in Iraq, but unfortunately – after the 2003 war – there was no support for artists or artistic initiatives,” Sabti told Arab News.

Even Saddam Hussein, during the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Baathist Iraq in the 1990s, gave money to artists “to buy equipment and to make exhibitions”, adds Sabti. “Thousands of artists left Iraq after the war and the galleries closed. But now we are experiencing changes.

“We want to support Iraqi artists and show another side of the country,” said Noor Alaa Al-Din, director of The Gallery, an art space that opened in Baghdad in October with a group exhibition of artists. well-known Iraqis. News.

‘Untitled’, Samah Alalosy, 2021. (Supplied)

The gallery organizes a new exhibition every month, but also tries to “do exhibitions in a new multidisciplinary way, different from other galleries in Iraq”.

As Al-Din, an artist herself, notes, there are still not many Iraq-based art collectors. Most of their buyers come from abroad.

“We try to support artists in different ways, selling their work through Instagram or our website,” she says. “We try to make our artists stars, by taking videos and photos of them and posting them on social media.”

In recent decades, as the world focused on the violence and desperation gripping the capital, the stories of its artists have come to light. International media and the art world generally focus on the many Iraqi artists living in exile.

“Often when we think of the Iraqi art scene, we think of accomplished artists who live in Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates or the West, but we forget that there is a vibrant art scene in Baghdad that has been manifested in recent years, especially when you consider the art that emerged during the 2019 protests,” Emirati patron Sultan Al-Qassimi told Arab News.

The recovering cultural scene in Baghdad also provides a portal to better understand the Iraqi people, especially the youth.

As Al Qassimi says, “Art is a way to connect with Iraqi youth to learn not only about their concerns, but also about their dreams and aspirations.

The roots of a new beginning are certainly there for Baghdad’s cultural scene, but only time will tell if this growth can transcend the complex socio-economic and political reality of the country.