In April 2003, Iraqi artist Qasim Sabti stood weeping in what remained of Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts, where he had once been a student and later taught painting. After heavy bombings of the area, roaming mobs had entered the academy, looted it and set it on fire. In the eerie silence of the ruins, Mr. Sabti stumbled over steaming piles of destroyed books as acrid smoke rose up from them, stinging his eyes. "I felt like a fireman desperately in need of finding survivors," he recalled.
Mr. Sabti picked up one book after another. Many were heavy and wet from being doused with water. Pages tumbled out of the bindings and splashed to the floor, breaking apart at the seams. That, surprisingly, was the moment of inspiration for Mr. Sabti: He would salvage some of the book covers and make collages of them. He saw the empty bindings as the "bones" of the books that had once been life-giving cultural resources. His collages, he decided, would give the bones new life, symbolizing the resilience of Iraqi culture and its Mesopotamian roots.
The war, of course, has emerged as a dominant theme among contemporary Iraqi artists, who tend to portray that destruction, react to it with alternative images, or harvest it to design something new. Yet their work, in general, is not overtly political, and much of it--despite the sinister realities that have inspired it--is beautiful. Certainly the art on display at the Pomegranate Gallery is. Its creators seem determined to salvage and breathe new life into a beloved culture out of the burned and tattered detritus of war.
Such is the case of Esam Pasha, who ran out of art supplies during the early days of the bombing of Baghdad. All he had left were some boxes of crayons. The nights were hot, and many buildings were burning. "I noticed that when a crayon was heated and began to melt, its head would gradually start to glow," recalled the artist, who eventually obtained a visa to come to the United States. He crushed the melting crayons onto paperboard, "painting" them into shapes. The artist called the resulting series "Tears of Wax."
"I will never forget those horrific nights when my brush strokes were not only my tears …