The "Free" Art of Occupation: Images for a "New" Iraq

By Shabout, Nada | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

The "Free" Art of Occupation: Images for a "New" Iraq

Shabout, Nada, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

ART IS INDEXICAL OF SOCIETY. It is expressive and reflective of its culture. Visual production has a continuous dialectical relationship with culture. Within the spaces shaped by this dialogic, new identities are negotiated and contested forming new and renewed cultural icons to the extent that Mieke Bal argues that "art thinks culture." (1) The dynamics of this relationship is impacted by political upheaval and is further complicated by outside interference often reflecting a new imposed modus operandi. Contemporary Iraqi art in the aftermath of the US-led invasion has taken on various roles, be that of resistance, documentation, testimony, prediction and hope.

In the postmodern era of image-making, possibilities of interpretation are as limitless as those of creation. Jean Baudrillard's definition of simulacrum, for instance, shattered the eternal art historical concern with the relationship between origin and copy. He argued that a movement from "representation" to "simulation" distorted the relationship between sign and referent. Some contemporary Iraqi works evoke Baudrillard's "simulacra" in its hyper-realist definition of the "absence of reality," specifically in their disconnect with their lived reality. (2) Baudrillard places the postmodern age in what he classifies as the third order of simulacra, which is dominated by a "precession of simulacra," where the representation precedes and determines the real, as "copies without originals."

Within the framework of occupation, these contemporary works further expose a campaign for "visualizing" Iraqi culture and spatially reconfiguring Baghdad in an effort to construct images for a "new" Iraq through ideological cultural reconstruction. In other words, these works could not be examined within the context of an art historical tradition attentive to styles and aesthetics. After all, Baudrillard declared that seeing is "no longer believing," and Mirzoeff added that it "is interpreting." (3) Given the exorbitant events taking place in Iraq since 2003, one cannot simply view its visual production in terms of cultural icons and their new meanings as transformations reflecting the formation of a "new nation," or the metamorphosis of the Iraqi nation within the current debate.

This essay is concerned with the discourse of power within which these works were produced. These objects of art are thus examined from the perspective of the ideology of their making (artist/patron) and that of their promotion/reception (viewer). Any visual analysis offered here is incidental and does not reflect a detailed stylistic evaluation. These works are seen as existing outside the development of Iraqi modern art insofar as they are disjunctured and reflect isolated incidents that have not been accepted or contextualized by Iraqi artists, but rather subsist on the periphery of established Iraqi art discourse. (4) "Art no longer has a link with history and continuity, but is caught in a chain reaction, that of simulacra and simulation." (5)


The power of visual language led to a subjugation of art and artists to the authority of politics, as attested by the various cases found in the history of art throughout the ages. Since the revolution of 1958 which ended the reign of the Iraqi monarchy, art in Iraq has served periodically (or systematically) as a propaganda apparatus. Much has been said about the Baath's and Saddam's exploitation of art to further their agendas. Arguably, there were initially some perceived benefits in Saddam's policies for the arts. There were however, equally long lasting damages. The relationship of Saddam Hussein to the development of the visual arts needs much examination and elaboration that is beyond the purpose of this essay. The Baath's censorship in regards to visual arts nevertheless, seems to be specifically misunderstood. The consensus among Iraqi visual artists is that while Saddam did not force any artist into producing propaganda art, he certainly rewarded those who did. …

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