To reclaim Baghdad, artists grapple with Iraq’s ‘ghosts’

Dressed in a multi-coloured beanie and grey sneakers, Zaid Saad had just finished setting up his art exhibit on Baghdad’s riverbank when police showed up. The piece was part of a two-day walking tour of Iraq’s capital, an effort by young artists to address social dilemmas and reclaim Baghdad’s identity after more than a decade of violence. But at every turn, organisers came up against some of the very stereotypes they sought to break down, from blast walls to jumpy security guards and sceptical members of Iraq’s conservative society.
Saad’s art, for example, was set up in a highly-sensitive area.
Police officers arrived as he was preparing to unveil his work, leading to a flurry of calls and authorisations before Saad was finally able to introduce the piece to the audience.
“Sanduq” or “Crate” in Arabic brought together 11 cardboard boxes, each representing an Iraqi who risked the sea route to Europe.
“I want to deliver the message that we should stay here. We should build our country first, and then go to other places,” Saad, 27, said.
Art, he insisted, could be a way to address the toughest challenges facing Iraq today: waves of emigration, the aftermath of the IS group, poverty and pollution.
“Iraqi society has gotten used to all forms of demonstrations and protest. It wants something new,” said Saad, a member of Iraqi art collective Tarkib.
Iraq has been rocked by waves of instability, from the 2003 US-led invasion to years of sectarian violence, and bombings, to the war against IS that ended last year.
Those 15 years have scarred the capital, with many streets sealed off by police and blast walls.
One segment of the “Baghdad Walk” ran parallel to a stretch of protective concrete T-walls separating an open-air market from a public bank.
Hussein Matar, the stocky photographer leading this portion of the stroll, was unphased.
“Everything negative in the city is just skin-deep. We can change it,” he said.
Despite his optimism, most of Baghdad’s heritage has been permanently “disfigured,” warned Caecilia Pieri, associate researcher at the French Institute of the Near East. And initiatives like the walk were only reaching a small segment of Iraqi society.— AFP

Maya Gebeily