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The artworks in Dafatir operate within a greatly expanded context of place and time — a context centered on Iraq, a place where history spans thousands of years, and the present is in a violent state of flux toward an uncertain future. The context of Dafatir is also the idea of ‘Iraq.’ Every visitor to this exhibition brings their own knowledge and ignorance, their own fears, anger, and confusion, their own desire to see what Baghdad artists have made.

Dafatir presents works by seventeen Iraqi artists from three generations, working through the mid-twentieth century to the present day. The book arts come from the collection of Dia al-Azzawi, an artist who participated in the New Vision movement of the late 1960s, now living in London. Four of the works are by Azzawi himself. Six others are by his immediate contemporaries, Rafa al-Nasiri, Shakir Hassan al Said, and Ismail Fattah; the latter two died in Baghdad in 2004. The remaining works are by younger artists, inspired by their elders but bringing new inspiration and ideas to book art formats.

Books, illuminated and manually inscribed, hold a place of honor in Iraqi/Arabic art, because of their connection with sacred teachings. In modern art, sketchbooks occupy a privileged place because they are repositories of artists’ most direct and private ideas. The objects presented in Dafatir richly reflect both of these traditions. Further, they belong to the contemporary genre of the artists’ book, which develops the book as art. Thus, the Dafatir bookworks embody several layers of tradition, experience, belief, and thought. Representing a high level of craft, they bring tradition into the present. They convey contemporary political statements about homeland and cultural identity. They operate as sites of private meaning to be shared with an unknown public. And they are objects created to participate in contemporary aesthetic discourses.

For many Iraqi artists, the book-as-art is a poignant response to tumultuous circumstances. The journal or notebook form is an accumulation of narrative fragments. Traditional books are portable and easily held. Fragmentation and portability speak directly to the situation of artists in Iraq today, where they may no longer have a secure space in which to work on large-scale projects. Even the largest and most unwieldy books in Dafatir allude to reading under varying and changeable situations.

Art historian May Muzaffar dates contemporary art in Iraq to the founding of the British-appointed national government in 1921. With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Iraqi artists embraced Western cultural influences. Returning home after years abroad, several Iraqi military men with artistic training brought a thorough knowledge of Western academic painting techniques. The new Iraqi government nurtured the practice of fine art by establishing art academies, fostering artists’ organizations and opening galleries and museums. Iraqi artists studied abroad, bringing home new ideas and a greater engagement with world culture. But the influx of outside ideas was balanced by the artists’ commitment to communicating something uniquely Iraqi and/or Arabic, and making visual statements about their own geography, history and human experience.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Baghdad emerged as a vital cultural center in the Arab world. Dia al-Azzawi, Ismail Fattah, Rafa al-Nasiri and Shakir Hassan al Said contributed significantly to this development. Art became an important component of national identity politics. But as the political climate began to change under Saddam Hussein, many artists began to leave Iraq. The country became embroiled in war, first with Iran (1980-88) then with the United States and Britain (since 1990). Under Hussein’s increasingly reactionary government, artists faced the decision to either remain home in isolation and increasing deprivation, or to live abroad. Expatriate artists have managed to advance the cause of Iraqi art in the world. And since the 1980s, those who stayed have maintained their artistic practices and used the isolation induced by sanctions and war to address a specific Iraqi reality.

Today, Iraqi reality is shaped by violence and desolation. But Iraqi culture and history remain vitally present. The seventeen artists in Dafatir fashion beauty and meaning out of this complexity. Artifacts of the ancient past—traces of Mesopotamia—find their way into many works. Calligraphy and cuneiform, silhouettes of domes and ziggurats, fragments of stone and mud, and allusions to gardens mix with references to shattered buildings, to blood, to a city under military surveillance. What emerges is the sense of a rich but raw environment, of harsh nature compromised by the war-time pollution, of cultural vitality and emotional exhaustion. One may sense hope mingled with despair, a stubborn clinging to beauty, and anger (perhaps less than expected), expressed in no uncertain terms.

Can this collection of artworks somehow represent a place, an accumulation of circumstances summed up by the word ‘Iraq’? Perhaps that is too much to ask of one small art exhibition. But Dafatir holds opportunities for new thinking and, with new thinking, hope.

Adapted from an essay by Janet Tyson
University of North Texas Art Gallery
October 2005