‘Fifteen lira’ blood-stained notes launch anti-war art project

Two blood-stained notes that crystallise the turmoil of an Iraqi artist’s life have inspired a major anti-war project.
Monday 30/11/2020
Iraqi artist Yousif Nasser (Yousif Nasser facebook account)
Iraqi artist Yousif Nasser (Yousif Nasser facebook account)

LONDON —In 1983, Yousif Nasser, who was working as a journalist with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)  publications in Beirut, volunteered to help the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. “There were no publications during the war so I volunteered to help in a hospital and was sent to pick up a wounded fighter who was shot in the chest and take him to the hospital,” Nasser recalled.

“The hospital was a fabricated building. I had to bring him to the fourth floor with no lift. The  man was bigger than me. I was hungry and tired because of the war. There was no food, no nothing. So I carried this person to the hospital with another person. They gave him a bed. You couldn’t call it bed – it  was just something to lie on. His chest was filled with shrapnel. Blood was everywhere,” said Nasser, recounting the details of the 37-year old event as though it were yesterday.

Iraqi artist Yousif Nasser (yousifnaser.com)  ​
Iraqi artist Yousif Nasser (yousifnaser.com)  ​

“The man asked me if I smoked. He wanted to smoke a cigarette. The doctor got very angry and said the ‘smoke will come out of your chest. You are full of holes.’ So I denied I was a smoker. The doctor said ‘give him a cigarette’ when he started shouting. The man pulled two Lebanese bank notes out of his pocket, one ten and one five lira. They were blood stained because the shrapnel went through them and looked like Arabesque. He asked me to buy him the cigarettes.

“No shop keeper would accept these notes so I put them in my pocket, bought him the cigarettes with my own money and went to help another wounded person. After the siege of Beirut I left for Syria. I forgot the 15 lira were still in my pocket. The Syrians took all my belongings including a forged passport. I left Syria for Cyprus after three years with the 15 lira.

“In Cyprus I worked as a designer for the PLO for seven years but had to leave in 1990 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. I hid the 15 lira and left for Norway. When I went from one place to another I left everything behind. All my belongings. I always had to leave my studio and lots of books and drawings. I left everything but his 15 lira stayed with me. I had to leave Norway after a month because they discovered I had a forged passport.

“When I got to England the authorities searched me but they did not find the 15 lira. I was sent to court and ordered to leave but I did not leave for two years and they finally accepted me as a refugee. This 15 lira stayed with me. It was something that crystallised the turmoil I had been through my whole life.”

Nasser settled in Ealing, West London. In 1997, he set up the ARK gallery in a vacant building belonging to West London Churches in South Ealing to provide a platform for innovative artists. In 2004, the council sold the building and provided alternative premises from which the ARK continued it activities until 2014. Sadly, this building was also sold and the ARK closed its doors.

Fifteen Lira note.
Fifteen Lira note.

Nasser then completed an MA in postmodernism from Middlesex University with distinction. He continued to produce a variety of art works, including his famous Black Rain series of sketches – an  initial reaction to post war trauma in Iraq.

But the memory of how he acquired the 15 lira, which have a proud place at his home where his modest studio is now based, has remained with him. There is emotion in his voice as he remembers the wounded fighter: “I was in that war that I was painting. Painting at a time like that seemed to me something unrelated to reality, here a real life and death game evolves, the dead man is not a  combination of lines and colours that you can master with exercise but a real body, bloody and shattered. The demolished houses are not surfaces of shadows and light, but rather sad ruins that turned painting into something incomprehensible.”

At the beginning of this year, Nasser decided to use his war experience to launch the “Fifteen” project and invited a range of international artists to create original art works using different mediums around the anti-war theme. He contacted artists from Lebanon, Iraq, Cyprus, Yemen,  Syria, Palestine, Israel, Slovenia and the UK and they started a dialogue about the  main themes of the project: How do we deal with the negative legacies of war? How do we remember and build on more useful legacies? How do we explore and express the relationship between war and art in a way that condemns war and glorifies peace? In addition to the artists, a filmmaker, painter, sculptor and musician all agreed to take part.

Black Rain 1, 3 x 5 metres, mixed media on canvas by Yousif Nasser (yousifnaser.com)
Black Rain 1, 3 x 5 metres, mixed media on canvas by Yousif Nasser (yousifnaser.com)

The ambitious project hopes to see artists complete their contributions by July 2021. Four exhibitions are planned: two in London and two in Cornwall, where workshops will be held at the Carnyorth Environmental Centre.  The art works will be displayed on a website for a year and the project process will be filmed and edited into a documentary. A project book will also be produced and sold to the public to help finance the next phase – a follow-up project focusing on how to build and maintain peace.