beauty on murals in Iraq

With Fixtures of War as Their Canvas, Muralists Add Beauty to Baghdad

Johan Spanner for The New York Times

An artist painting a blast wall on Abu Nawas Street in Baghdad, part of a city program to come to terms with the slabs of concrete that have sprouted across the city. 

By STEPHEN FARRELL, Published: August 11, 2007

BAGHDAD, Aug. 10 — Dead blocks, they call them, the most visible legacy of the latest war in a city with a long history of wars.

For four years these vast concrete slabs have slowly crept through Baghdad, snaking along road, river and sidewalk as they shut out light and encircled ministries, palaces and districts.

Now, confronted by the inescapable presence and likely longevity of these blast walls, the city has hired two dozen Iraqi artists to soften their harsh gray solidity by using the city’s past to hide its present.

Jamaat al-Jidaar, they call themselves: “the Wall Group.” Paid modest stipends that start at about $15 a day, they have spent the past month squatting on scaffolds painting images of warriors, kings and myths from past millennia onto 52 slabs of 12-foot-high concrete beside the Tigris River.

All face the ever-present fear of Islamist fanatics — on both sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide — who have killed, intimidated or driven away thousands of Iraqi artists whose vision is inconsistent with their own intolerant interpretation of Islam.

With few opportunities for work, they are delighted with the money, but are also uncomfortably aware that all they can do is paint the symptoms of a conflict that has mired their city in death squads, sectarian violence and crumbling infrastructure, and lost billions of dollars to corruption, waste and mismanagement.

A two-minute drive away, a suicide bomber killed 20 people last week. Just behind the artists’ scaffolding, hundreds of Iraqis line up all day trying to buy gasoline, in a land that sits atop some of the world’s largest oil fields.

“This is a farce, a parody, that you need so much and you spend money on other things,” said Hassan Ibrahim, 45, one of the artists.

“This neighborhood is close to the Tigris River, and yet we suffer from a shortage of water and power,” he added. “Money is spent on unnecessary things and there is so much embezzlement on other projects. Yet this is like a drop in the sea, and it has cultural, artistic and aesthetic meaning.”

He pointed to newly painted scenes that, he said, depicted an Assyrian king wrestling with a lion, and Mesopotamia’s ancient system of cuneiform writing.

“Amid the wreckage and devastation in Iraq this is something good, something hopeful, that we can paint a brighter spot on a wall to make people feel better and more optimistic,” he said.

The artists’ first project, a few months ago, turned a soulless stretch of barriers near the capital’s landmark Paradise Square into a neck-craning blur of fishermen’s boats, Arabian stallions, mountains and rural landscapes.

The idea grew out of a few informal daubings that appeared on barricades on the east bank of the river. It was picked up by American soldiers working with Iraqi neighborhood councils, and the program gained momentum.

The new murals are part of wider beautification works financed by the American military, the Iraqi government and aid organizations as part of an often-foiled effort to renovate Baghdad, as well as to improve its security. More art projects will be planned for other sites if the program wins popular support — and if the artists stay alive.

They have no illusions about the dangers.

Their hope, though, is that they will avoid objections to the subject matter by choosing themes like the pre-Islamic Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations in whose scientific, legal and artistic achievements all Iraqis take pride.

“This is something beautiful to do such work, bringing to life these dead blocks,” said Tahar, 30, a graduate of the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad who is among those hired by the Ministry of Works and Social Affairs. “This is seen by all.”

Maj. Anthony Judge, the executive officer for the First Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which has been overseeing revitalization works in the neighborhood, said the intention of all such local projects was to stimulate economic recovery by providing Iraqis with jobs.

“We decided that they needed to be painted so that the area didn’t look like a military base with all that concrete,” he said. “We wanted it to be something that people felt comfortable with, and proud of.”

These murals are apolitical. They show Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, King Sargon of Akkad, a winged bull with a human head from the palace at Dur Sharrukin, archers, priests and bejeweled queens.

However, politics intrude elsewhere. In the Green Zone, outside Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s canalside compound, one 15-foot-high barrier bears a far more contemporary message.

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