‘Picasso in Baghdad,’ an unusual art event attracts large crowds
Baghdad - At first sight, the posters of a Picasso painting plastered on the walls of Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts and al-Hiwar Gallery announcing an exhibition of the works of the Spanish painter and other international artists looked out of place and strange but they signalled much more.
“It was such an important event,” Qassem Nayef, a ceramics professor at the academy, said. “For the first time, original works by such world-renowned artists were displayed in Baghdad.”
The exceptional exhibition at al- Hiwar gallery — one of the few now open in the city — featured works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and Marc Chagall.
“Baghdad has hosted hundreds of art exhibitions, especially before the changes that took place in 2003 but never the works of artists of the calibre of Picasso and Dali,” Nayef said.
“It was a unique occasion and an act of defiance against the (insecure) conditions that we have been living and which deprived us of the chance of enjoying such displays in a city that was once lively with art and artists.”
After the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq descended into a lengthy period of violence that included waves of sectarian killings and culminated in the Islamic State (ISIS) offensive of 2014.
The idea of the exhibition came from an anonymous Iraqi collector and expatriated friend of al-Hiwar gallery owner Qassem Sabty.
“It was the brainchild of this friend of mine who has spent a large part of his life in Holland,” Sabty said. “Being an expert in evaluating old manuscripts and historic scripts, he had the chance to scrutinise hundreds of original artworks and to collect [dozens] over more than 30 years through auctions and museums.”
The collector had wanted to open an art museum in Baghdad or in his home city of Karbala, in southern Iraq, to have a permanent display of his collection but the security situation in the country and complicated bureaucracy dissuaded him.
“The alternative was to exhibit part of his collection to share with the Iraqi public,” Sabty said.
“The exhibition was a historic chance for Iraqis to feast their eyes on artworks of such big masters and for the students of fine arts to examine closely the experience of these artists who constituted schools of their own in contemporary and fine arts,” added the gallery owner, who also heads the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society.
The exhibition featured 42 works, including 24 lithographs bearing Picasso’s signature. The gallery, set in an old Baghdadi house with a closed garden in the high-security neighbourhood of Waziriya, was the perfect setting for such valuable works, some of which date from the 1950s and 1960s.
“The gallery was chosen for hosting the exhibition because of its secure location. Our proximity to the highly guarded Turkish Embassy encouraged us to go on with that adventure. Other places in the city do not have such protection,” Sabty said.
The exhibition “Picasso in Baghdad” was scheduled in late November for three days but it was extended for a week because of its popularity.
“Most of the visitors came from the art circle, mainly fine arts teachers and students. Unfortunately, the golden age for art in Iraq when exhibitions were appreciated by high-ranking officials, intellectuals, diplomats and the bourgeois class is gone because of the conditions in the country and the emigration of many art lovers and artists,” Sabty noted.
He lamented the closure of so many art galleries and spaces, of which only two or three are operating but added on a positive note that “art is like oxygen for Baghdad and its people who refuse to surrender to the present circumstances and hope for change and a better tomorrow.”
The artworks were estimated to value between $15,000-$25,000. But Sabty said: “They are priceless pieces and there is little chance that they could be purchased by local buyers because of their high cost. In fact, we did not reveal their value because that would have placed us in some form of danger.
“Instead, the collector’s aim in having the show is to let them be seen by the public and those who appreciate the fine arts.”
Fine arts student Saja Walid said the exhibition was an unprecedented event and a breath of fresh air for art lovers.
“The paintings are invaluable pieces. It is such a great and unbelievable surprise… Maybe next time we will have the da Vinci [‘Salvator Mundi’] exhibited in Baghdad,” Walid said referring to the painting, which was recently purchased by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism for a record $450 million.
A worker at the gallery said he was overwhelmed by the sight of the crowd filling the space. “I cannot describe my feeling of happiness,” he said. “It is a sign of stability and return to normal life in Baghdad, a city that cannot live without art.”