Iraqi women artists face many obstacles, receive little support

Contributions by Iraqi women extend past the fine arts to other genres, including theatre and drama, said actress and director Awatef Naeem.
Sunday 10/02/2019
A painting by Yusra Alabadi on display at the annual exhibition of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society in Baghdad.     (Oumayma  Omar)
In the spotlight. A painting by Yusra Alabadi on display at the annual exhibition of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society in Baghdad. (Oumayma Omar)

BAGHDAD - For more than a decade, Iraq’s rich history of art has been undermined and overshadowed by politics, war and destruction. The art scene suffered as collectors fled the country and artists who could afford it followed suit.

However, on entering the hall of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society in Baghdad’s Mansour neighbourhood, one is amazed by the quality, quantity and diversity of artwork available in the country today.

The society revived its annual art exhibition in 2008 to help rebuild the country’s shattered cultural scene. Baghdad’s biggest cultural event was suspended after the US-led invasion in 2003. The works of approximately 160 artists were showcased at this year’s exhibition.  

That nearly 90% of the work on display was by male artists points to the poor female representation on the Iraqi arts scene.

“Only 17 women artists featured in the show. Their participation was very low compared to last year’s,” said society President Qasim Sabti. “This is not due to the lack of Iraqi women’s artistic capacities or talents but because many are not ready to take part in such a major event, in addition to the limitations placed on participation criteria that include age and experience.”

Sabti, a celebrated painter who has been a pillar of Iraq’s art scene for decades, said that there are many women artists who are preparing to burst on the scene “like a tsunami.”

“We have many young and talented female artists, much more than in the past. Some have already been able to carve a niche for themselves on the arts scene, surpassing well-known artists and this is a great achievement for Iraqi culture,” he said.

The society is planning an exhibition for women artists only in March.

“There are as many as 420 women engaged in different branches of fine arts today, a big number compared to the ‘80s of the last century when we had 70 female artists, among whom only 30 could excel and establish a name for themselves,” Sabti said. “Artistic competition is very harsh at present, which shows that the art movement is regaining momentum and moving forward.”

Painter Yusra Alabadi, who was among the few female artists featured in the show, said obstacles before the art scene in Iraq were immense, even though the Iraqi Plastic Arts Society and the Academy of Fine Arts boast thousands of members and students nationwide.

“Women’s contributions have dwindled on the cultural arena because they have lost the feeling of belonging as well as creativity. Some 50% of those who claim to be artistic are trying to imitate others and they eventually slip into repetition and redundancy, which is neither appreciated nor sustainable,” Alabadi said.

She downplayed the effect of the security and economic situation in Iraq on artistic performance, saying: “Despite the fact we are living in very difficult conditions and our country is still under occupation, it should not affect creativity but, on the contrary, arts and culture constitute a safe haven for artists and writers.”

Contributions by Iraqi women extend past the fine arts to other genres, including theatre and drama, said actress and director Awatef Naeem.

“There are many reasons for that, including the demotion of culture in Iraq in general and the absence of cultural awareness among women,” she said.

“However, the main reason is the rise of social conservatism and religiosity which imposed strong restrictions on women’s participation in cultural activities, especially drama and theatre.”

For her latest stage production — “The Slaves of Baghdad,” which she said was inspired by the Islamic State’s enslaving of women — Naeem recruited some actresses who agreed to participate without remuneration. “This shows that Iraqi actresses are committed to their art, are respectful and want to have a presence on the cultural scene despite the many challenges,” she said.

“Drama production, as well, has been undermined and almost halted for several years to the exception of a few TV series which would only employ a handful of actresses.”

Sabti, who is also the owner of Hawar Gallery, one of the last bastions of art open in Baghdad, said the art market dried up after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and the outbreak of sectarian violence and insurgency.

Wealthy and middle-class Iraqis who once bought art moved away; Western diplomats who bought local works disappeared into the Green Zone and nearly all the Saddam-era galleries closed their doors for good.

Under Saddam, art was publicly funded, though within strict political constraints.

Now, for the artists, there are fewer constraints but less support.

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