Iraqi artist captures remnants of attacks

An attack at the Hotel Palestine in Bagdad on January 25 killed over 35 people. Rubble was still being cleared three days later.
By Bram Vermeulen in Baghdad

Mohammed Musayer creates art from the ruins of attacks, to defy those who preach hatred. Part three of a five-part series from Baghdad.

First there is a loud bang, followed by utter silence. Nobody speaks. In that silence, the smoke spirals up. Iraqis who have seen many suicide attacks say those emit white smoke. Black smoke indicates other, foreign bombs. After the silence, screams and sirens are heard, accompanied by the sound of the police shooting in the air, often in blind panic, looking for the enemy who has already killed himself. The officers also shoot to chase bystanders away, to make room for the ambulances, the relief workers.

After about two or three hours, when bodies have been cleared, rubble has been swept aside and bystanders have gone home, Mohammed Musayer (47) arrives to collect the last remnants of the disaster. He finds strange objects in the charred ruins of a suicide attack. Melted plastic, twisted iron, an ironing board a housewife had just bought. Recently, he found a crib. He couldn't leave it behind. "You immediately know what happened. It hurts deep in the heart," Musayer said.

Using the debris as his raw material, Musayer creates works of art; molding objects together and painting them in wild colours. One could see him as a morbid sightseer drawn to disaster, but he sees his collector's mania as an expression of art, and a way not to forget. "I carry death with me all the time. But in this city, death is everywhere. Everyone carries it with them," he said.

Bad news for artists and secularists

Art is rare in Baghdad. Beauty, along with anyone who still believes in the future of this country, is a target for bombers. Artists themselves are also targeted.

Musayer began visiting disaster areas three years ago, when his good friend and fellow artist, Sermat Gazi, was killed in an attack. Sermat had wanted to help those injured in the explosion when a second bomb went off close to him. That was the day Musayer decided to continue visiting attack scenes to tell the story everyone in this city knows.

He works in a cluttered studio in Karada, a neighbourhood of small shops that sell everything from vegetables to flat-screen televisions. Bombs have been going off here ever since the US invasion in 2003. The vitality of the neighbourhood is prey to insidious terror.

Musayer fears the parliamentary election will cast Iraq back into violence. After last year's provincial elections, Iraqis seemed to turn their backs on the preachers of sectarianism. They were disappointed in the failure of religious parties to make good on their promises of a better life. But the March 7 national results show the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr has received many votes.

Election results

Former prime minister Iyad Allawi and his secular party narrowly won Iraq's parliamentary elections. Allawi took 91 of the 325 seats, just ahead of incumbent prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi National Alliance of which Moqtada Sadr is a member got 70 seats.

This is bad news for artists and secularists. Bad news for Mohammed Musayer, who wears glasses and has straight long hair. "I get stopped on the street," he said. "They tell me to cut off my hair." Supporters of Sadr are not alone in telling him so. In Baghdad, dress codes, appropriate lengths of hair and beards, vary per week, per neighbourhood, depending on who mans the checkpoints.

Bare breasts and buttocks

Except for his hair he mainly fears for his work. Musayer hoped for ultimate freedom after the fall of Saddam Hussein. For nearly 30 years, Iraqi artists had no other way to make money than to paint portraits of the great leader. "I tried to escape the yoke and created my own freedom within the dictatorship," he said. "But now religious leaders tell me my work is haram, sinful."

His studio is filled with female beauty: bare breasts and buttocks. His favourite is the portrait of an Iraqi female poet who lives in Amman, Jordan, who asked him for a nude portrait. He painted her with the help of a webcam.

The laughter in the studio was drowned out by the sound of rattling machine guns outside. Army helicopters flew overhead. Battle is never far away in Karada.

The announced withdrawal of US troops, beginning September 1, is a setback for Musayer. Foreigners, aid workers and diplomats, are his clients. "Iraqis don't understand my work. And even if they did, they wouldn't buy it," he said. "After the fall of Saddam, the government had to decide what to do with all the squares where his statues used to be. We have tried to pitch ideas, but they have no concept of art."

The narrow election victory of former prime minister Iyad Allawi marks the start of a long period of coalition talks and insecurity. Musayer believes his promised land will be a long time coming. "We had such great plans after the fall. Just look at the mess we live in now. We still have difficult times ahead."

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