Iraqi artist’s attempt to tap into children’s imagination
London - War colours the life of every Iraqi the way sunrays spill into unlit spaces. What it has failed to do is paralyse the country’s imaginative capabilities. It’s the weapon of choice that Baghdad’s newest crop of artists are using to inspire creativity and combat cultural decay.
“With or without government funding, it’s what we do,” Baghdad-based artist Evan Hikmet said.
Though not the path Hikmet originally set on, warming responses from towering illustrators, including Abd al-Rahim Yassir, Shafiq Mehdi and others, reassured Hikmet as she tilted from fine arts to children’s book drawings.
Hikmet graduated from Baghdad’s fine arts academy in 2008 and worked in print journalism, which she left for the world of picture illustration.
“Knocking on the door of children’s imagination isn’t easy,” said Hikmet, despite having moved comfortably into her new role.
The subsequent chapter of her career unfolded at Dar al-Thaqafa, a government institution that promotes children’s education and culture.
“My assignments mainly involved translating written words into images, whether short stories, articles or books,” Hikmet said.
She more recently turned her sights to publishing, working with writers Qassim Saadawia and Ithar Mattar and the newly formed government-funded publisher of children’s books Dar al-Farashat (House of Butterflies). Hikmet has been approached by European authors wanting an Arabic folklore flavour to accompany their printed works.
With time, practice and self-training, Hikmet has developed her own, locally inspired signature style: Characters that represent different stages of Arab history, sharp lines, prominent facial features, landscapes made of swirling patterns and vivacious colours.
Despite war-imposed restrictions that limit artists’ freedoms, changing conditions are shaking up the largely male-dominated profession. Hikmet is one of many rising female artists, with various publications to her credit.
Art, she said, not only inspires but educates young minds like a fireball that opens the way for children to discover their self-worth.
“The seeds of our electronic rituals have been sown in every Iraqi household that it is impossible to disentangle children entirely,” Hikmet said. “What we are doing is raising awareness through community outreach initiatives some of which make it to the mainstream, while others don’t.”
Hikmet discussed the advantages of using social media to publicise her works and initiatives seeking to raise inquisitive and intellectually fed generations. Their efforts serve as measures against illiteracy but the problem is even greater.
Iraqi culture is being bled towards a slow death.
“Interest has stooped to an all-time low when we look at the purchase of artistic creations and art show attendance, ceremonial at best,” Hikmet said.
As far back as the 13th century, illustrations have animated the pages of manuscripts in science, physics, astrology and medicine to assist the readers’ acquisition of knowledge.
Iraq’s best-known manuscript illuminator, 13th-century artist Yahya al-Wasiti’s comic-like Maqamat al-Hariri tales left a veritable storehouse from which many continue to draw inspiration.
Hikmet’s folklore-infused imagery reworks something intangible from this ancient past, “a spirit,” Hikmet describes, casting its shadow over her works. “Iraq always finds its way in,” she says.
Iraq’s treasured history nurtures the old and young.
The role of illustration in Iraq has noticeably shrunk but initiatives springing from the bottom up are combating apathy and promoting the rights of Iraqi children the world has forgotten about.
A newly founded centre Markaz al-Mutanabbi al-Saghir, in the heart of Iraq’s literary boulevard — Mutanabbi Street — where workshops take place, is a big stride towards this collective endeavour.
Hikmet and local artistic troupes tour disadvantaged communities and invite parents and children to raise awareness about these matters. As Hikmet advised: “Children should be flipping pages, tracing words with their hands — smell, touch and feel these books.”
Drowning children in books is not so much the aim as reprogramming the way society views child development. Data from UNESCO indicate that the literacy rate for Iraqis aged 15-24 had dropped from 84.8% in 2000 to 52.3% in 2013 and was 43.7% — down from 74.1% — for all Iraqis 15 and older.
If they don’t, the steady growth of illiteracy may permanently alter the century-old Arabic proverb: “Books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq.”