Culture: ART against All Odds; after Years of Suppression under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Artists Are Free to Work Again. Tamzin Lewis Talks to the Woman Who Has Brought Her Art to Newcastle against All Odds

The Journal (Newcastle, England), September 20, 2008 | Go to article overview

Culture: ART against All Odds; after Years of Suppression under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Artists Are Free to Work Again. Tamzin Lewis Talks to the Woman Who Has Brought Her Art to Newcastle against All Odds


MOUNTING an exhibition of contemporary Iraqi art in Newcastle would be a reasonable challenge for any curator. But Emily Porter was determined to show that beautiful art can rise from the desolation of war.

However it has not been without difficulties and she tells me that some works destined for her show are stuck in transit in Jordan and Syria, while others have just reached London. "I will try and find them," she says. "The pieces in London are in a container somewhere. Other works are coming, but it takes time to transport these works as most artists cannot afford courier fees."

Despite logistical difficulties, Emily has acquired a remarkable selection of painting and sculpture by Iraqi artists who either live in Baghdad or are now based in Europe. Her exhibition, Art and Peace from Baghdad to Newcastle, is showing at The Art Works Galleries in Newcastle's Ouseburn before being transferred to the Guildhall.

You might wonder at the hopeful use of Peace in the title. However, this is crucial to the show. Emily, an artist, writer and critic, points out that Baghdad's original name was City of Peace while Newcastle was announced as a City for Peace earlier this year, making a link between the two.

And most exhibits are inspired by peace rather than death and destruction, with artists being influenced by nature, heritage and Iraq's rich artistic tradition which dates back to ancient Sumerian times.

Emily, whose father was Cumbrian and mother Iraqi, says that many artists in Baghdad want to express their sense of freedom and hope for the future. She explains: "Iraqi people have lived destruction and they want to enjoy freedom now.

"Everybody knows why the recent invasion happened and people have had enough of it.

They don't care about Bush and Blair, but they do care about survival. During the Saddam era there was no hope, but there are possibilities now."

She adds: "There is another face to Iraq, not just war, violence and the occupation. It would be good if people in Britain supported Iraqis in their pursuit of peace."

Emily, 68, fled the country in 1989, after facing suppression by Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime, and made her home in Newcastle. She had earlier arranged for her son, Feras Jerjis, to escape Iraq and attend school in Cumbria - where members of her father's family live.

Feras, who is one of the exhibiting artists, says: "Under Saddam's dictatorship, free expression was brutally suppressed. The government wanted to own artists, ensuring that they become instruments of the state, reflecting the glory of the regime.

"Anyone who stood against that was jailed, tortured or killed. Some artists had to toe the party line, some people refused to cooperate and some fled the country. Others stayed but refused to do art."

As an artist who didn't support the government, Emily found she was effectively prohibited from painting and was forced to resign her job at the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.

She says: "I couldn't practise art under Saddam. …

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