Ruya Foundation’s chairman Tamara Chalabi writes about her research trip in Baghdad with curator Jonathan Watkins, for the for the Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th Venice Biennale:

With Jonathan Watkins, Director of Ikon in Birmingham and curator of the pavilion, we travelled as a team to Iraq for the first time in December 2012, to start developing ideas for the pavilion. Arriving in Baghdad, we took the approach of an ‘open call’, inviting artists to meet and show us their work. We gave a talk there to nearly 100 local artists about the Venice Biennale within the context of the international art world. It’s rare for artists in the country to gather in this way and talk about their practice.

RUYA talk by Jonathan Watkins and Tamara Chalabi presenting the Venice Biennale, December 2012, Baghdad, Courtesy Ruya Foundation

Visit to Hewar Gallery, Baghdad

In Baghdad, we worked with various consultants and experts to find out more about the difficulties posed by being an artist. With the invasion of US troops, following years of sanctions, the established art scene in Baghdad was effectively wiped out. Most collectors fled the country and many artists who could afford it followed suit, having a very negative impact on those who stayed.  We visited the few galleries that still exist in the city.

Curator Jonathan Watkins  with Qasim Sabti at the Hewar Gallery. Photo: Mohamad Al Yissari.

Curator Jonathan Watkins with Qasim Sabti at the Hewar Gallery. Photo: Mohamad Al Yissari.

One of these is Hewar Gallery, a space run by Qasim Sabti from his house.  As he could not travel to sell works abroad, he relied on diplomats, journalists, and employees of the United Nations and the Red Cross who visited his gallery to sustain his business.

The rooms in his house are full to the brim with paintings, frames and bits of canvas accumulatedover the years. Qasim himself is also an artist and using his courtyard garden as a meeting place for Baghdad’s sculptors, painters, playwrights, poets and other art enthusiasts, he has become something of an unofficial authority figure for visual artists in Iraq. ‘Hewar’ in fact means dialogue.

The Institute of Fine Arts

We visited Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts, a college run by the government where students join at around age 16 mainly to learn classical techniques in sculpture or painting. Hamid Nafel, a sculptor and art history professor there, spoke movingly both about his commitment to the local arts scene and his love for Iraq. At the same time he yearns to visit great museums in other parts of the world, such as the Louvre and the British Museum.

College of Fine Arts - University of Baghdad (2)

College of Fine Arts, University of Baghdad. Photo: Ruya Foundation.

Institute of Fine Arts, University of Baghdad. Photo: Ruya Foundation.

Contemporary Dance

Signs of Baghdad’s re-emerging arts scene are visible throughout the city not just within the visual arts but across performing arts too.  Here, a group of contemporary dancers perform modern movements fused with Iraqi traditional dance.

Photo: Ruya Foundation

Photo: Ruya Foundation