Thursday, September 29, 2005

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"We knew how to deal with the secret agencies"

BAGHDAD, 25 Sep 2003 (IRIN) - "After years of being shunned by the regime of former president Saddam Hussein, Hassin Bresen's songs are popular once again – they are played on the radio and sung by children on the streets of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

“I was shunned because I was the only singer in Iraq who didn’t sing the songs praising Saddam as a hero,” Bresen told IRIN, as he remembered how he was treated. “Uday (Saddam Hussein’s son) controlled the TV station, and he pushed me aside. I was not allowed there.”

These days, the professional singer is just one of the many artists gathering at Hewar Art Gallery in Baghdad to discuss how things are going in Iraq. Painters, poets, sculptors, novelists and playwrights gather in chairs in the garden to talk.

In the restaurant next door, a famous barbecued fish dish is the special on the menu and crowds gather to sample it and Bresen’s latest song, which tells the story of what happened to Iraqi people over the past few months after former president Saddam Hussein's regime fell. Iraqi residents are not “Ali Baba” (thieves), Bresen sings.

"The people just want to correct the wrongs of 35 years under the dictator when they take things from government offices to their homes. Iraqis should be proud of their heritage," he sings.

Bresen wasn’t the only one persecuted for his work under the regime. Almost all of the paintings at Hewar Art Gallery are colorful, abstract pieces. Sculptures are abstract bronzes - mostly of human forms. The realistic paintings are stylised settings of families relaxing, or still life paintings.

Painters did mostly abstract work so that the government wouldn’t be able to criticize them, says Maher al Samarrai, a painter who worked and taught in the United States for many years to escape from the oppressive Iraqi government. He said he felt he had to leave the country after showing a painting of a fish with a chain in its mouth. Government officials questioned him strongly, but didn't jail him.

“When they asked, I said, ‘it’s general, it’s not about the government.' I said there are places all over the world where people cannot breathe,” Al Samarrai told IRIN. “We knew how to deal with the secret agencies. We talked about different subjects, but covered the idea.”

Gallery owner Qasim Alsabti, who creates plastic art, says artists who exhibited at his gallery tried to stay out of politics. But paintings and sculptures still caught the attention of the minister of information, who told the artists they had to paint in a realist style. One artist was jailed for a year after speaking against the government, but the others continued in whatever style they chose, Alsabti said, adding that his plastic sculpture was not political.

“We had a lot of problems with the government, but we established ourselves and sold many paintings," Alsabti told IRIN. “We decided to do just pure art.”

But Thikra Mohammed Nader was so afraid that police would take her or her family members prisoner, she published her novel “Before the End of the Century” in Egypt in 2000, rather than in Iraq. Even then, she said, she was constantly looking over her shoulder. “I wanted to tell people outside what we were experiencing, before Saddam Hussein and during his reign,” she told IRIN. “But I was very scared about my family.”

Alsabti started the gallery in 1992 in honour of soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war. He has mounted more than 100 exhibitions in the last 10 years. The government let the gallery stay open, mainly because it was fashionable for many of the people with money in Iraq to collect art, Alsabti says. In recent years, however, many of those families fled the country, leaving the artists without much means of support.

The gallery owner said he looked down on people willing to serve Saddam’s “propaganda centre” as he calls it - referring to those willing to work on Saddam paintings and statues for money.

But for Abdul Jabar, who was chosen in a competition to create a public art project to commemorate children killed during the Iran-Iraq war when a rocket fell on an elementary school, there were also some good things that came out of government recognition. After doing a monument to the children, for example, Jabar was commissioned to do a piece in Italy.

In the aftermath of the war this spring, much of Jabar’s monument has been destroyed - he believes by looters looking to sell some of the bronze as scrap. “They can’t take it all away, so it’s damaged,” he told IRIN. “I’m afraid they will destroy it. Nobody has given me help to protect it, neither American soldiers nor Iraqi police."

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