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Hedendaagse kunst uit de Arabische wereld en Iran (verschenen als ingezonden stuk in Kunstbeeld, april 2011)

الفن المعاصر في العالم العربي وإيران

For the english version ‘Modern and contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa’ click here

Tekst van mijn ingezonden stuk in Kunstbeeld van vorige maand, maar hier voorzien van beeldmateriaal en van een groot aantal links in de tekst, die verwijzen naar diverse sites van de kunstenaars, achtergrondartikelen of documentaires. Overigens geef ik op dinsdag 17 mei een lezing over precies dit onderwerp, in Diversity & Art, Sint Nicolaasstraat 21, Amsterdam, om 20.00bij de tentoonstelling van Qassim Alsaedy, zie  http://www.diversityandart.com/centre.htm (zie over de tentoonstelling het vorige artikel op dit blog). Onderstaande tekst kan ook als introductie dienen op wat ik daar veel uitgebreider aan de orde laat komen:

Wafaa Bilal (Iraq, US), from his project ’Domestic Tension’, 2007 (see for more http://wafaabilal.com/html/domesticTension.html )

Hedendaagse kunst uit het Midden Oosten verdient onze aandacht

(in Kunstbeeld, nr. 4, 2011)

Door de recente ontwikkelingen in Tunesië en Egypte en wellicht nog in andere Arabische landen, dringt nu tot de mainstream media door dat er ook in de Arabische wereld en Iran een verlangen naar vrijheid en democratie bestaat. Hoewel in de westerse wereld vaak teruggebracht tot essentialistische clichés, blijkt het beeld van de traditionele Arabier, of de fanatieke moslim vaak niet te kloppen. Het oriëntalistische paradigma, zoals Edward Said het in 1978 heeft omschreven, of zelfs de ‘neo-oriëntalistische’ variant (naar Salah Hassan), die we kennen sinds 9/11, inmiddels ook virulent aanwezig in de Nederlandse politiek, wordt door de beelden van de Arabische satellietzenders als Al Jazeera ontkracht. Er zijn wel degelijk progressieve en vrijheidslievende krachten in het Midden Oosten actief, zoals iedereen nu zelf kan zien.

Pas sinds de laatste jaren begint er steeds meer aandacht te komen voor de hedendaagse kunst uit die regio. Kunstenaars als Mona Hatoum (Palestina), Shirin Neshat (Iran) en de architecte Zaha Hadid (Irak) waren al iets langer zichtbaar in de internationale kunstcircuits. Sinds de afgelopen vijf à tien jaar zijn daar een aantal namen bijgekomen, zoals Ghada Amer (Egypte), Akram Zaatari en Walid Ra’ad (Libanon), Emily Jacir (VS/Palestina) en Fareed Armaly (VS/Palestijns-Libanese ouders), Mounir Fatmi (Marokko), Farhad Mosheri (Iran), Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabië), Mohammed al-Shammerey en Wafaa Bilal (Irak). Het gaat hier overigens vooral om kunstenaars die tegenwoordig in de westerse wereld wonen en werken.

Afbeelding49

Walid Ra’ad/The Atlas Group (Lebanon), see http://www.theatlasgroup.org/index.html, at Documenta 11, Kassel, 2002

Mounir Fatmi (Morocco), The Connections, installation, 2003 – 2009, see http://www.mounirfatmi.com/2installation/connexions01.html

Toch is het verschijnsel ‘moderne of hedendaagse kunst’ in het Midden Oosten niet iets van de laatste decennia. Vanaf het eind van de Eerste Wereldoorlog, toen de meeste Arabische landen in de huidige vorm ontstonden, trachtten kunstenaars in diverse landen een eigen vorm van het internationale modernisme te creëren. Belangrijke pioniers waren Mahmud Mukhtar (vanaf de jaren twintig in Egypte), Jewad Selim (jaren veertig en vijftig in Irak), of Mohammed Melehi en Farid Belkahia (vanaf de jaren zestig in Marokko). Deze kunstenaars waren de eerste lichting die, na veelal in het westen waren opgeleid, het modernisme in hun geboorteland introduceerden. Sinds die tijd zijn er in de diverse Arabische landen diverse locale kunsttradities ontstaan, waarbij kunstenaars inspiratie putten uit zowel het internationale modernisme, als uit tradities van de eigen cultuur.

Shakir Hassan al-Said (Iraq), Objective Contemplations, oil on board, 1984, see http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2008/shakir_hassan_al_said/photos/08

Ali Omar Ermes (Lybia/UK), Fa, Ink and acryl on paper

Dat laatste was overigens niet iets vrijblijvends. In het dekolonisatieproces namen de kunstenaars vaak expliciet stelling tegen de koloniale machthebber. Het opvoeren van locale tradities was hier veelal een strategie voor. Ook gingen, vanaf eind jaren zestig, andere elementen een rol spelen. ‘Pan-Arabisme’ of zelfs het zoeken naar een ‘Pan-islamitische identiteit’ had zijn weerslag op de kunsten. Dit is duidelijk te zien aan wat de Frans Marokkaanse kunsthistoricus Brahim Alaoui ‘l’ Ecole de Signe’ noemde, de school van het teken. De van zichzelf al abstracte kalligrafische en decoratieve traditie van de islamitische kunst, werd in veel verschillende varianten gecombineerd met eigentijdse abstracte kunst. De belangrijkste representanten van deze unieke ‘stroming’ binnen de moderne islamitische kunst waren Shakir Hassan al-Said (Irak, overleden in 2004), of de nog altijd zeer actieve kunstenaars Rachid Koraichi (Algerije, woont en werkt in Frankrijk), Ali Omar Ermes (Libië, woont en werkt in Engeland) en Wijdan Ali (Jordanië).

Laila Shawa (Palestine), Gun for Palestine (from ‘The Walls of Gaza’), silkscreen on canvas, 1995

Wat wel bijzonder problematisch is geweest voor de ontwikkeling van de eigentijdse kunst van het Midden Oosten, zijn de grote crises van de laatste decennia. De dictatoriale regimes, de vele oorlogen of, in het geval van Palestina, de bezetting door Israël, hebben de kunsten vaak danig in de weg gezeten. Als de kunsten werden gestimuleerd, dan was dat vaak voor propagandadoeleinden, met Irak als meest extreme voorbeeld (de vele portretten en standbeelden van Saddam Hussein spreken voor zich). Vele kunstenaars zagen zich dan ook genoodzaakt om uit te wijken in de diaspora (dit geldt vooral voor Palestijnse en Iraakse kunstenaars). In Nederland wonen er ruim boven de honderd kunstenaars uit het Midden Oosten, waarvan de grootste groep uit vluchtelingen uit Irak bestaat (ongeveer tachtig). Toch is het merendeel van deze kunstenaars niet bekend bij de diverse Nederlandse culturele instellingen.

Mohamed Abla (Egypt), Looking for a Leader, acrylic on canvas, 2006

In de huidige constellatie van enerzijds de toegenomen afkeer van de islamitische wereld in veel Europese landen, die zich veelal vertaalt in populistische politieke partijen, of in samenzweringstheorieën over ‘Eurabië’ en anderzijds de zeer recente stormachtige ontwikkelingen in de Arabische wereld zelf, zou het een prachtkans zijn om deze kunst meer zichtbaar te maken. Het Midden Oosten is in veel opzichten een ‘probleemgebied’, maar er is ook veel in beweging. De jongeren in Tunesië, Egypte en wellicht andere Arabische landen, die met blogs, facebook en twitter hun vermolmde dictaturen de baas waren, hebben dit zonder meer aangetoond. Laat ons zeker een blik de kunsten werpen. Er valt veel te ontdekken.

Floris Schreve

Amsterdam, februari 2011

Ahmed Mater (Saoedi Arabië), Evolution of Man, Cairo Biënnale, 2008. NB at the moment Mater is exhibiting in Amsterdam, at Willem Baars Project, Hoogte Kadijk 17, till the 30th of july. See http://www.baarsprojects.com/

Tot zover mijn bijdrage in Kunstbeeld. Ik wil hieronder nog een klein literatuuroverzichtje geven van een paar basiswerken, die er in de afgelopen jaren verschenen zijn.

• Brahim Alaoui, Art Contemporain Arabe, Institut du Monde Arabe, Parijs, 1996
• Brahim Alaoui, Mohamed Métalsi, Quatre Peintres Arabe Première ; Azzaoui, El Kamel, Kacimi, Marwan, Institut du Monde Arabe, Parijs, 1988.
• Brahim Alaoui, Maria Lluïsa Borràs, Schilders uit de Maghreb, Centrum voor Beeldende Kunst, Gent, 1994
• Brahim Alaoui, Laila Al Wahidi, Artistes Palestiniens Contemporains, Institut du Monde Arabe, Parijs, 1997
• Wijdan Ali, Contemporary Art from the Islamic World, Al Saqi Books, Londen, 1989.
• Wijdan Ali, Modern Islamic Art; Development and continuity, University of Florida Press, 1997
• Hossein Amirsadeghi , Salwa Mikdadi, Nada Shabout, ao, New Vision; Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, Thames and Hudson, Londen, 2009.
• Michael Archer, Guy Brett, Catherine de Zegher, Mona Hatoum, Phaidon Press, New York, 1997
• Mouna Atassi, Contemporary Art in Syria, Damascus, 1998
• Wafaa Bilal (met Kari Lydersen), Shoot an Iraqi; Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, City Lights, New York, 2008 (zie hier ook een voordracht van Wafaa Bilal over zijn boek en project)
• Catherine David (ed),Tamass 2: Contemporary Arab Representations: Cairo, Witte De With Center For Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2005
• Saeb Eigner, Art of the Middle East; modern and contemporary art of the Arab World and Iran, Merrell, Londen/New York, 2010 (met een voorwoord van de beroemde Iraakse architecte Zaha Hadid).
• Maysaloun Faraj (ed.), Strokes of genius; contemporary Iraqi art, Saqi Books, Londen, 2002 (zie hier een presentatie van de Strokes of Genius exhibition)
• Mounir Fatmi, Fuck the architect, published on the occasion of the Brussels Biennal, 2008
• Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Grassroots of the Modern Iraqi Art, al Dar al Arabiya, Bagdad, 1986.
• Liliane Karnouk, Modern Egyptian Art; the emergence of a National Style, American University of Cairo Press, 1988, Cairo
• Samir Al Khalil (pseudoniem van Kanan Makiya), The Monument; art, vulgarity and responsibillity in Iraq, Andre Deutsch, Londen, 1991
• Robert Kluijver, Borders; contemporary Middle Eastern art and discourse, Gemak, The Hague, October 2007/ January 2009
• Mohamed Metalsi, Croisement de Signe, Institut du Monde Arabe, Parijs, 1989 (over oa Shakir Hassan al-Said)
Revue Noire; African Contemporary Art/Art Contemporain Africain: Morocco/Maroc, nr. 33-34, 2ème semestre, 1999, Parijs (uitgebreid themanummer over Marokko).
• Ahmed Fouad Selim, 7th International Biennial of Cairo, Cairo, 1998.
• Ahmed Fouad Selim, 8th International Biennial of Cairo, Cairo, 2001.
• M. Sijelmassi, l’Art Contemporain au Maroc, ACR Edition, Parijs, 1889.
• Walid Sadek, Tony Chakar, Bilal Khbeiz, Tamass 1; Beirut/Lebanon, Witte De With Center For Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2002
• Paul Sloman (ed.), met bijdragen van  Wijdan Ali, Nat Muller, Lindsey Moore ea, Contemporary Art in the Middle East, Black Dog Publishing, Londen, 2009
• Stephen Stapleton (red.), met bijdragen van Venetia Porter, Ashraf Fayadh, Aarnout Helb, ea, Ahmed Mater, Booth-Clibborn Productions, Abha/Londen 2010 (zie ook www.ahmedmater.com)
• Rayya El Zein & Alex Ortiz, Signs of the Times: the Popular Literature of Tahrir; Protest Signs, Graffiti, and Street Art, New York, 2011 (see http://arteeast.org/pages/literature/641/

Verder nog een aantal links naar relevante websites van kunstinstellingen, manifestaties, tijdschriften, musea en galleries voor hedendaagse kunst uit het Midden Oosten:

Mijn eigen bijdragen (of waar ik mede een bijdrage aan heb geleverd) elders op het web

Op dit blog:

Iraakse kunstenaars in ballingschap

Drie kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld

Ziad Haider (begeleidende tekst
tentoonstelling)

Qassim Alsaedy (begeleidende tekst tentoonstelling)

Interview met de Iraakse kunstenaar Qassim Alsaedy

Hoshyar Saeed Rasheed (begeleidende tekst tentoonstelling)

Aras Kareem (begeleidende tekst tentoonstelling)

links naar artikelen en uitzendingen over kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld

De terugkeer van Irak naar de Biënnale van Venetië

Nedim Kufi en Ahmed Mater; twee bijzondere kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld nu in Amsterdam

Kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld in Nederland (Eutopia, 2011)

Zie ook mijn nieuwe Engelstalige blog over oa hedendaagse kunst uit de Arabische wereld On Global/Local Art

Interview met de Iraakse kunstenaar Qassim Alsaedy – قاسم الساعدي

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Voor mijn scriptie-onderzoek naar kunstenaars uit Arabische landen in Nederland heb ik zo’n twintig kunstenaars geïnterviewd. Meestal waren dat functionele gesprekken, vooral bedoeld om data te verzamelen. Zelden waren het mooie afgeronde verhalen. Dat lag niet aan de kunstenaars maar aan mij. Het ging mij in de interviews er vooral om zoveel mogelijk feitenmateriaal te verzamelen. Ook verliepen sommige gesprekken weleens wat chaotisch, sterk van de hak op de tak springend. Maar deze gesprekken waren veelal een middel en eigenlijk nooit het einddoel. Een enkele keer is er een mooi en gestructureerd interview uitgekomen, ook nog met een bijzondere kunstenaar. Mijn gesprek met Qassim Alsaedy (Bagdad, 1949) werd een onverwacht mooi geheel. Dat lag niet zozeer aan mij, maar vooral aan hem.

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Zijn werk was me opgevallen in een catalogus uit Rijswijk, waar hij met vier andere gevluchte Iraakse kunstenaars exposeerde, georganiseerd door vluchtelingenwerk. Ik vond zijn werk er toen al uitspringen en besloot om een keer op atelier-bezoek te gaan om hem uitvoerig over zijn werk te bevragen.
Naast het bijzondere verhaal dat hij over zijn werk te vertellen had, bleek ook zijn levensverhaal buitengewoon indrukwekkend (voor zover je die twee zaken kunt scheiden, langzamerhand ben ik ervan overtuigd dat dit vrij moeilijk is). Nadat we eerst op een paar algemene zaken van zijn werk ingingen en zijn achtergrond en opleiding als kunstenaar in Irak, nam het gesprek een bijzondere wending. Wat mij betreft is dit een van de meest bijzondere verhalen over hoe kunst kan overleven die ik ooit gehoord heb, zelfs in een extreem totalitaire samenleving. Het gaat in een belangrijke mate over het nastreven van vrijheid en schoonheid, tegen de verschrikking van dictatuur en oorlog in. Het verhaal van een sterk individu tegen een tiranniek systeem. Van een goed kunstenaar en iemand die weigerde compromissen te sluiten met een verdorven regime of een totalitaire ideologie en daarvoor een hoge prijs moest betalen. Naast over zijn werk vertelt de kunstenaar over zijn verblijf in ‘al-Qasr an-Nihayyah’ (‘Het paleis van het Einde’, de voorloper van de tegenwoordig overbekende en beruchte Abu Ghraib gevangenis) en over zijn tijd bij het Koerdische verzet in de bergen van Noord Irak. Vervolgens zijn uitwijken naar Libie, waar hij Khadaffi’s krankzinnigheid van nabij meemaakte, om uiteindelijk in Europa terecht te komen.

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Inmiddels is het de kunstenaar goed vergaan. Hij is verbonden aan een gerenommeerde galerie en exposeert in binnen een buitenland. In 2006 had hij zelfs een grote solo expositie in het Flehite museum te Amersfoort, die werd geopend door de nieuwe (dus ‘post-Saddam’) ambassadeur van Irak in Nederland. Ook is hij inmiddels meermalen op televisie verschenen en hebben diverse media geruime aandacht aan hem besteed (zie ook de linkjes in mijn blog over kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld). Toe ik hem interviewde was dit echter nog niet het geval en behoorde hij tot de groep onbekende en ontheemde gevluchte kunstenaars uit Irak, waar het regime van Saddam Hoessein nog oppermachtig was.
Hoewel ik veel uit dit materiaal heb geciteerd (in mijn scriptie, lezingen en diverse artikelen) heb ik het interview nooit integraal gepubliceerd, terwijl het alleszins de moeite waard is, zelfs ongeredigeerd. Bij deze dan op mijn blog. Het gaat hier om de onbewerkte tekst van de band, maar die is al mooi genoeg. De werken die in het interview worden getoond zijn uit de tijd dat ik de kunstenaar voor het eerst sprak (periode 1999-2000). Het hier getoonde beeldmateriaal is overigens van recenter datum.

 

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Mijn artikel uit ‘Leidschrift'(van de vakgroep geschiedenis van de Universiteit Leiden), waarin ik het werk van Qassim in de bredere context van de Iraakse moderne en hedendaagse kunst bespreek: http://www.leidschrift.nl/nl/archief/173-de-maatschappij-verbeeld-in-de-kunst/out-of-mesopotamia-de-versplinterde-identiteit-van-de-irakese-kunstenaar-in-diaspora

De hier getoonde werken komen uit de serie/installatie ‘Last Summer in Baghdad’, 2003/04. De kunstenaar maakte deze serie werken nav zijn eerste bezoek aan zijn vaderland, in de zomer van 2003, na de Amerikaanse inval en de val van het Baathregime.

Voor zijn meest recente werk, zie de website van Frank Welkenhuysen (zijn galeriehouder):

http://www.kunstexpert.com/kunstenaar.aspx?id=4481

televisie uitzendingen gewijd aan (oa) Qassim Alsaedy:

Beeldenstorm (Factor, IKON)

http://www.ikonrtv.nl/factor/index.asp?oId=924#

RAM (VPRO, 19-10-2003)

http://www.vpro.nl/programma/ram/afleveringen/14421835/items/14495412/

Twee andere interviews:

http://www.actum.org/05/Welkenhuysen/default.htm

Zie op dit blog ook Drie kunstenaars uit de Arabische wereld , Iraakse kunstenaars in ballingschap en de begeleidende tekst van de Tentoonstelling van Qassim Alsaedy uit 2011

 

INTERVIEW QASSIM ALSAEDY –  قاسم الساعدي (Baghdad 1949)

Could you tell me something about the art education in Bagdad?

I studied in Bagdad from 1969 till 1974. I lost one year in the political Underground Prison, to which I was kidnapped, for political reasons. Because I was sent to this awful place I studied five years on the academy for painting. Beside studying we were educated in the European culture. There was a great knowledge of the history of European painting.

Baldin Ahmad told me the art education in Bagdad is very European focussed.

We studied art according the Italian, French or other European methods. You have to see this training as a kind of key,  which can open doors when you want to see more, especially when you have dreams to be an artist. So you have to research when you want to be someone.

What I really want to know, why there was a lack of interest in the Arab and Islamic arts, for example the calligraphic tradition?

When we studied art history, we studied it in general. When you study the arts of the prehistory till the present, seven thousand years of culture in four years, it stays on a very general level.

I was told you were mainly educated about Rembrandt and Michelangelo.

We had maybe too little information about contemporary art. We learnt about Rembrandt, about van Gogh, maybe some later. Picasso, he was ok, but then it stopped.

So no Pop Art or Joseph Beuys?

We learnt about the arts before the First World War. After the First World War and the Second World War in Europe there became a huge complex of new ideas in art, in culture and in economy. For us it is very important what had happened later. I mean, what is the influence of war and peace? What had really happened? What is the realistic and what is the abstract? So you have to research it yourself, because the lessons in art history were so limited.

You work in an abstract way. The Arabic and Islamic art have a long abstract tradition. Are you influenced by this tradition?

First I have to tell you we studied according to the European style. The brushes, the canvas, all those supplies were European. Although we were trained like European artists I personally think Europe doesn’t need more artists, from other continents, working in the same way and thinking. I am convinced that the contemporary world culture needs some other air or some other elements, to enrich the blood of the international art. Anyhow, I believe that I, who grew up in Iraq, or Mesopotamia, or the Middle East, have to use a lot of elements to make art. In this way I can feed another and I can share these elements with the world. I can say, look, I have some things, and I like to say something different. It is a way to enrich yourself, some others and to enrich the world.In my background I can find a lot of elements. For example in Asia we use the lines. We use them more than the fields of colour. In our tradition lines are more active, making more life in the painting. It is for the simple reason we have sharp lights. It is because of the sun, there is a sharp contrast in light and shadow. For example in Holland the shadows are quiet misty, so that is the reason in Northern Europe the lines are less important than in Asia. So I use the lines because it is a part of my heritage.Beside we have also the sense for the letters. For me I have not the same aim of the calligrapher. I respect the form of the letters, but all the letters, from all the alphabets in the world. I studied different alphabets, how they can be used to make magic.

 

Using the letters in an alchemistic way?

Exactly. Well, we have the alphabet of Adam, our grandfather, there is the alphabet of David, of Jesus, of Mohammed, whatever, of all these prophets. You see, all these letters are factually abstract drawings. You can use them phonetic but they are abstract symbols. I am interested in reusing these materials, but not to make a text.For example here you see some lines, like traces on a wall, which became my theme later. Some of them seem like letters. But I mean I never want to make a text. It is interesting to see the traces of letters on a wall, the old writings. For me it is very humanistic because they are always traces of human life. So I like this form to make an image, not to make a sentence.

I read that the ancient ruins of Babylon and Ur play an important role in your work.

Yes, when I lived in Bagdad I travelled very often to Babylon, which is very close to Bagdad. It is interesting to see how people reuse the elements of the ancient civilisations. For example, my mother had an amulet of cylinder formed limestones. She wore this amulet her whole lifetime, especially using it when she had, for example a headache. Later I asked her: “Let me see, what kind of stones they are?” Then I discovered something amazing. These cylinderstones, putting them in the clay, left some traces like the ancient writings on the clay tablets. There was some text and there were some drawings. It suddenly looked very familiar. I asked her: “what is this, how did you get these stones?” She told me that she got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, etc. So you see, there is a strong connection with the human past, not only in the museum, but even in your own house. When you visit Babylon and look to the Ishtar Gate, you find the same traces of these stones. So history didn’t end.In my home country it is sometimes very windy. When the wind blows the air is filled with dust. Sometimes it can be very dusty you can see nothing. Factually this is the dust of Babylon, Ninive, Assur, the first civilisations. This is the dust you breath, you have it on your body, your clothes, it is in your memory, blood, it is everywhere, because the Iraqi civilisations had been made of clay. We are a country of rivers, not of stones. The dust you breath it belongs to something. It belongs to houses, to people or to some texts. I feel it in this way; the ancient civilisations didn’t end. The clay is an important condition of making life. It is used by people and then it becomes dust, which falls in the water, to change again in thick clay. There is a permanent circle of water, clay, dust, etc. It is how life is going on and on.I have these elements in me. I use them not because I am homesick, or to cry for my beloved country. No it is more than this. I feel the place and I feel the meaning of the place. I feel the voices and the spirits in those dust, clay, walls and air. In this atmosphere I can find a lot of elements which I can reuse or recycle. You can find these things in my work; some letters, some shadows, some voices or some traces of people. On every wall you can find traces. The wall is always a sign of human life.

 

Do these ancient civilisations have a message for our time?

First I have to say we have the European Art. Further we have some uneuropean elements you can find them in many places. Sometimes I think about the caves of the prehistoric Sahara civilisations. You can find them on the border of Libya and Algeria. There you can find a lot of written messages. They couldn’t really write like our way of writing, but you find a lot of drawings. When I lived in Libya I studied them. Some of those Primitives were my teachers. They draw layers over layers, to tell their messages. For me these drawings are very important. Later I used somehow of the drawings, but then in a modern way. In more recent European Art we learned children drawings are very important. As such are also the drawings of the childhood of mankind important, just as important as our own first drawings. We have to use those elements to create something new. I believe that this happened in a certain way in Europe. We have to reuse our heritage to make something new. You can think a lot of things are very old, but you can reuse those elements again and again. All these elements are still alive. It is difficult to say that things in a museum are old and have no life. If you say that, why don’t you close it. It is shown because it still has a meaning. We still like to see them, because we like to think of our childhood as human beings. Maybe we would like to communicate with those cultures, with those people. Maybe we would like to catch the spirit of history when we put our shadows on those things, the old statues or the old paintings. I enjoy history as I enjoy present time. I can find many things and it is also available for anyone to find some other elements or sources to create something new. I think the history and the art is still available in somehow, still alive for anyone who wants to communicate with the past or the present. They still give you spots of life and some sense of meaning. It gives you always the possibility to make a dialogue.

In the time you studied on the academy in the nineteen-seventies, in Bagdad an avant-garde group was founded called the “One Dimension Group”. They worked, just as you do, with abstract symbols and signs. Were you related to them?

The artist who created this group, Shakir Hassan al-Sai’id, was my teacher .

Really? It is amazing to see how things fall in their place. Some artists discussed in  historical books, such as the books of Wijdan Ali and Brahim Alaoui, are related to the artists living in the Netherlands which I am researching. For example Baldin Ahmad told me he was a student of Faik Hassan and Jawad Salim.

Faik Hassan was my teacher also, and Jawad Salim, who died very early,  was in a certain way also a teacher for me, but in a more symbolic way; for me he was a symbol of a good artist. But Faik Hassan was my teacher for painting in the primary school, while Shakir Hassan al-Sai’id was my teacher in the secondary school. But I never joined the one dimension group. Some of the work this group produced I like very much but in general it was not so clear what is really one dimension art. Shakir Hassan al-Sai’id had a certain concept, but it was difficult to say this is one dimension art. There were a lot of artists who joined that group, but they had no any idea what they were doing. Just using some letters or abstract lines and they saw it as one dimension art. When it looked a little bit to calligraphy, it was enough.

Another aspect of your work, I read in some articles, is that your paintings are a kind of messages to your mother, who isn’t able to read or write. Could you explain it for me?

Well, for me in my position, because I had to leave my country, it is very important how to communicate with my mother. You have to know she developed a kind of a writing system. Of course she couldn’t write but she used a kind of abstract drawings. For her it had the same meaning of a text. Some abstract lines, she liked to use the pencil. It was a really important lesson to me. At first, to learn to communicate and sending her something how I feel about some things and I believe she can feel those drawings, even there is no exactly meaning.  Those drawings she felt about it. I am sure because they were so basic humanistic. Later this meaning became something bigger. It became for me a symbol, a symbol for the land, a symbol for my country, a symbol of place, a symbol of the people. For this mother, the Great Mother, but also my mother, the woman who made me, my own mother and the Big Mother I make my messages. In this way I communicate with her, I still talk with her, because she is a great symbol. For the painting her soul, her existence, is really essential. For her I make my symbols, my elements, my language. I am drawing my things to her. So therefore are my lines still lines, because I write for her. The line is anyhow important so I still work with the line, so they are still active in my paintings.

Sometimes there are some realistic signs in your work, like flags, or the roofs of houses. For example your painting “Rhythms in Blue” (oil on canvas, 1997), shown at the exhibition “Versluierde Taal”(museum Rijswijk, 1999) looks a little bit on a city by night. Also the pyramid form is an essential motif in your paintings. Can you explain why?

Well, this work I like to talk about it ( http://florisschreve.hyves.nl/fotos/355737279/0/uiES/?pageid=C5R662MESRSO4K8S). The original painting, which is now in the gallery Kunstliefde in Utrecht, I made it in my flat in Bilthoven, which is on the eight’s flour. I like Utrecht and I can see the tower of the church. About the painting someone asked me: “Where is this place?” Well, for me it was Bagdad. While I was looking to Utrecht, I was thinking on Bagdad. So it is mixed, those two places.And the triangle, it is an old form. For me it has a spiritual meaning. It is the symbol of the people who are striving to the divine, like the Dom of Utrecht. You can also find the triangle as an important symbol in North Africa, like in Libya, where the triangle is a symbol of the goodness.

I read sometimes the suffering in your country plays an indirect role in your work, like the black fields of Kurdistan. Can you tell me more about this? Did you see them yourselves?

Yes I saw them because I lived there.

You are not Kurdish I read?

No, I am Arab, but I joined the movement which was against the regime. I worked there also as an artist. I exhibited there and made an exhibition in a tent for all these people in the villages, but anyhow, the most amazing was the Iraqi regime uses a very special policy against Kurdistan, against this area and also against other places in Iraq. They burned and sacrificed the fields by using enormous bombings. So you see, and I saw it by myself, huge fields became totally black. The houses, trees, grass, everything was black. But look, when you see the burned grass, late in the season, you could see some little green points, because the life and the beauty is stronger than the bastards. The life was coming through. So you saw black, but there was some green coming up. For example I show you this painting which is extremely black, but it is to deep in my heart. Maybe you can see it hardly but when you look very sensitive you see some little traces of life. You see the life is still there. It shines trough the blackness. The life is coming back.

Why did you move to Libya?

I moved to Libya because I had no any choice to go to some other place in the world. I couldn’t go for any other place, because I couldn’t have a visa. It was the only country in the world I could go. Maybe it was a sort of destiny. I lived there for seven years. After two years the Kuwait war broke out in Iraq followed by the embargo and all the punishments. In this time it was impossible for a citizen of Iraq to have a visa for any country in the world.

 

Also it was impossible for a refugee?

Of course it was possible for a refugee, but for me didn’t ask for a refugee status, because I said: “Well, when I am still capable to feed myself, I didn’t want to go to Europe and ask for support. I am an artist, who still can work.” If I can feed myself, if I can work, if I have one square meter to stand on, I am aware I am alive and will be still there, even when it is very difficult. When you lose this last square meter you have to look for an other place to stand.

So you worked in Libya as a lecturer on the art academy?

Yes, I worked as a teacher on the academy of Tripoli, but the most interesting thing I did there was making many huge wallpaintings. The impossible happened when the citycounsel of Tripoli supported me to do something like that. I had always the dream how to make the city as beautiful as possible. I was thinking about Bagdad when I made it.My old dream was to do something like that in Bagdad, but it was always impossible to do that, because of the regime. I believe all the people in the world have the right on freedom, on water, on sun, on air, but also the right on beauty. They have the right on beauty in the world, or in their lives. So one of my aims was to make wallpaintings and I worked hard on it. They were abstract paintings, but I tried to give them something of the atmosphere of the city. It is an Arabic, Islamic city with Italian elements. I tried to make something new when I studied the Islamic architecture. I worked on them with my students and so something very unusual happened, especially for the girls, because in our society it is not very usual to see the girls painting on the street. It was a kind of a shock, but in a nice way. It brought something positive.

The people in the street liked what you were doing?

Yes, they liked it very much, so they asked me to do same thing five years later.

After Libya you moved to different European countries?

First I exhibited at a very nice festival at Tunisia (International Festival of Plastic Arts, Almahris, 1990, 1991, 1992). For three years I was invited to join the festival. It was a good opportunity for me to meet many artists from many continents, from Europe and the others. There were a lot of artists from France, Belgium, Germany and other countries. Since this event I thought, look, let us do something, let us talking, let us be working together. Let us look for this crazy war which it is still going on. I am against the war anyway. What happened in Kuwait and what happened in my country is a very sad story. Let us stop talking with guns, and all the craziness. Let us talk in a civilised way. Let us talk in art and let us talk about what is good for all the people. Of course you can talk a lot about all these crazy people, from Hitler to Saddam Hussein, Mussolini, Stalin, etc. Let us talk in a good way. Let us do something. In this way we tried, me and some colleagues, to make a dialogue, to work together in art. To work together with the art from all the continents in an equal and nice way. So we did something in Tunisia, something in France (International Art Festival, Tonnay-Boutonne, 1993). I think the artists can make a good dialogue between all those people, better than the politics and the governments.

Do you have an explanation for the fact that contemporary art from the Arab World is such an isolated and unknown phenomenon?

I believe that the policy of all those education and information ministries is very bad. I mean, the ministries from the Arabic administrations. In the Arabic countries the culture and the art stand in the back. In general, the governments are not interested to show what their countries really have. The artists have to manage everything themselves. It is really hard that artists have to manage themselves to communicate, to find a place, or to enter the European cultural life. Since the last twenty years you see the artists try to find a place, to escape. Our teachers, most of them, have studied in Europe before they turned back to Iraq. But how to show what you have is really difficult. In Europe making art is much more easier because you don’t have those crazy leaders we have in Arab countries, those regimes, those horrible things.

 

Well I noticed that not only in Iraq, but even in Jordan there is no freedom of press.

In none of these countries there is any freedom. Maybe in Lebanon you could feel yourself a little bit free, but the other countries are absolutely very bad. It is very difficult to make good art in Iraq, in Libya, in Yemen, or in Sudan, they are all really horrible. You see for those terrible governments and ministries it is not important to send an exhibition every year, or maybe in three or five years, to send out what the country have in the field of art. Also it is difficult to show all you have in a good way, because some have the opportunity more than the others. It depends on your relationship with the government and the ministry.

Is there also a lot of misuse of good art by these regimes? For example, according Wijdan Ali and Brahim Alaoui, Ismail Fattah is one of the most important sculptors of the Arab world. According another publication, however, “The Monument; art, vulgarity and responsibility in Iraq”, by Samir al-Khalil (pseudoniem van Kanan Makiya), which was published in London, Ismail Fattah makes large monuments, everywhere in Bagdad, to honour the martyrs of the “Great War of the Fatherland” against Iran. In Wijdan Ali’s book, “Contemporary Art from the Islamic World” (Amman, 1989), which I believe it is very important because it is so unique in its kind, it is shocking to read how the author of the chapter about Iraq, May Mudaffar, writes about Ismail Fattah. She describes these monuments, but she never discusses the political background. Maybe it is impossible to do, because there is censorship in Jordan, but I think this example shows there is an enormous problem in integrity how to deal with art and how to have a decent art criticism.

In Iraq we have many good artists. But these artists didn’t sell themselves in a cheap way. Some artists respected themselves. But some others they sold themselves, in a cheap or an expensive way. The market was open and you could have the choice. You could be send to the jail, or worse to the political underground jail, or putted in the shadow. The other option was to be made very famous and to be a millionaire, but then you have to work with them. It already begun when we were at the academy. The Baath party was in power for one year (1968) and they had a problem; no artist was a member of this party, no artist wanted to join such a thing. So they came to the academy and said: ”Well we are the party which is in power, and we need some artists to make an exhibition”. They asked for the most talented students. So we were invited for a meeting to drink some tea and to talk. Well, ok we went to that meeting. They told us they liked to exhibit our works, in a good museum, with a good catalogue and they promised all these works would be sold, for the prize we asked.  It seemed that the heaven was open for us and we said, ok, that’s nice. Then they came with their conditions. We had to work according the official ideology  and they should give us specific titles. We refused their offer, because we were artists. When we agreed we would sold ourselves and it would be the first step to hell.Later they found some very cheap artists who joined them. All their paintings had been sold. It was really shit, but the prizes were high. One of them, I know him very well, he bought a new villa and a new car. And in this way they took all this rubbish from these bad artists, and showed them and said: “Well, this is from the party and these are  the artists from Iraq”. The others were put in the dark side of the cultural life. Really, you can find a lot of good artists, a lot of honest artists. When you see the list of good artists and writers who left Iraq, than you really can see what  kind of a country this is! For example one of the pioneers of modern art in Iraq, Mahmoud Sabri, who is making really very fine art, lives now in Prague. He was a good educated man, better than Faik Hassan and Jawad Salim, but he left Iraq for a long time. So it happened with a lot of other good artists. There are a lot of good artists, outside Iraq and some inside Iraq. However, the sculptor and ceramist you mentioned, Ismail Fattah, works for the regime for a long time. I admire him for his work in the sixties and I feel sorry for him now.

 

What is your opinion about the quality of institutions for contemporary art in the Arab world, for example the Darat al Funun in Amman, the Nicolas Sursock museum in Beirut, or the Sharjah Biennale in the United Arab Emirates?

I believe, the Darat al Funun and some others, they are very good.

Is there not also the problem of censorship?

Well, in Jordan you can exhibit what you want. For the Iraqi artists it was the only hope to reach Amman, because it was the only opportunity to exhibit your work. The border to Jordan is the only one which is open, because we are totally isolated from other countries. For us Amman is the only gate to the world, because most of the Iraqi artists became very poor, so they couldn’t go further. Most of the Iraqi artists exhibited there, but the pity thing is, they had to sell themselves in a little bit cheap way, because the art market in Jordan is so small, so limited, when you have such a number of Iraqi artists.  But in general, when you find in Jordan, which is such a poor country, four or five art centres, it is very nice.In Lebanon there are also good institutions for contemporary art. In the gulf countries they have no tradition to deal with art.

Money enough, I should say.

Yes, but no money enough to send them to the artists. But you see, in contrary to the ministries, some small particular initiatives are sometimes very good. I saw it in Tunisia and there is also a wonderful gallery in Tripoli, the Dar al Funon.

One of the most important questions I would like to ask for my research is, have you ever noticed some misconceptions about Arab culture in the west? Have you ever dealt with some prejudices about the “Orient”? I ask you this, because I would like to research in what way the notion of “Orientalism”, from the Palestinian philologist Edward Said, plays a role in receiving the art from Arab countries.

This is an important point. Look, in Iraq we studied the art history of Europe so we know a lot about it. But in Europe there is a very little information about our culture, on our art. Many of our teachers went to study in Europe. We have also a lot of institutions. We have three academies and a few museums. This is nothing compared by in Egypt, or in Lebanon, or even in Syria. But when you are in Europe and you tell you are an Iraqi artist, they put you in a very small and tiny corner. It means they ask you: “Do you work in a traditional way? Do you make traditional arts and crafts? Do you make decoratives, or calligraphs?”  I say then: “No, I am making modern art”. Some of them ask: “So you are an artist. Did you know something about art when you were in your country, or did you learn it here?” I say: “I worked in my country as an artist”. “Did you make paintings in your country?”. I say: “Yes!”. “Did you exhibit in your country and did you sell work in your country?” .”Yes”.Sometimes it is really painful. Why are we so isolated? Well, of course we have been isolated, from Europe, because we have a crazy regime. And it is not only our regime, also the Libyan regime, or whatever regime. But on the other hand, there is no regime like that in Europe. So they have the possibility to go there, to look, to communicate, to write and to show. I think here you have a lot of papers, magazines, TV channels, etc. So why are we so isolated?So therefore I say, let us talk. Let us work together and let us showing something. Let the artists themselves to do that. Not the ministries, not the regimes. I have nothing to do with politics and the policy of my government, or to any other government. Let us talk as artists, as educated people and as human beings. I am not very optimistic but it is not an impossible dream, isn’t it?

Floris Schreve

De Bilt, 8-8-2000

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