Iraq’s Art and Music Scene – More Vibrant than Ever

[Jakarta, LTTW] It’s been a decade since the Iraq War had begun. Did the “mission accomplished” fantasy last? Not from what it seems in many media portrayals of Iraq so far. Nonetheless, let’s not forget that this is about Iraq, the land once known as a peaceful salad bowl of cultures; and to the Iraqis, things are a little bit different. The hopes are high, and they are taking it very seriously.

According to the Telegraph, the Iraqi capital Baghdad is approaching herself as a “capital of culture” for 2013, to remind the world that there is more to culture than bombs and bloods in Iraq. There are more indicators showing that the recent “battlefield” caused by the war is rebuilding itself a home that can provide a positive energy for the people. The National Museum of Baghdad was finally reopened; a number of Iraqi Diasporas have brought together Iraqi artists across the globe to share their experiences through art; not-for-profit projects for the advancement of Iraqi art and public education are springing up everywhere; and top-selling musicians are growing swiftly.

The above indications are truly a good sign of Iraq’s rising, and certainly as good as knowing that the arts are responding to such struggles. However, being around the ever growing arts activities do not necessarily mean that the culture is “vibrant” already; it is a term used for reflecting how the arts is functioning as healing and creative force among the societies. Viewing today’s Iraq’s vibrant art and music scene within this perspective, we have had to trace back from its great history of art and music, and then ask ourselves a question: Will the future of Iraq’s art and music scene be vibrant than ever?


Iraq’s Art and Music Scene – More Vibrant than Ever

by Livia Bergmeijer*

(MUFTAH, IRAQ) The Iraqi art and music scene is flourishing – but you wouldn’t know it by watching or reading the news. Political chaos, economic suffering, death and destruction still dominate media portrayals of Iraq, a country which has experienced unspeakable suffering in recent decades.

It is perhaps for this very reason that many Iraqis – both at home and in the diaspora – have turned to the arts in search of new channels of self-expression.

Iraqi art and music are hardly new phenomena. Classical Iraqi (Mesopotamian) music goes back to the times of the great Abbasid Empire when minstrels would render the poetry of court bards into song.

Since then, Iraqi music has developed into one of the Arab world’s most celebrated musical traditions. The late Iraqi musician, Munir Bashir, known as the ‘King of Oud,’ was considered a master for his unique improvisation techniques (taqsim) and his use of the Arabic, and typically Iraqi, maqamat scale system – an art form recognized by UNESCO as “an intangible heritage of humanity.”

Iraqi performers Kazem el Saher, Ahmed Mukhtar, and Ilham al-Madfai are among some of the most prestigious and top-selling musicians in the region, blending the classical tradition with more modern and popular influences.

Iraq is equally revered for the architectural treasures of its thousands-year old Mesopotamian civilization. One of the most heart-wrenching events of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was the looting in April 2003 of the National Museum of Baghdad, home to a vast collection of ancient artifacts and precious architectural specimens – thousands of which were either plundered or destroyed.

An investigation conducted after the looting revealed that the museum had been converted into a military fighting base shortly after the invasion. Such contempt for the “Cradle of Civilization” greatly undermined the importance and relevance of Iraq’s archaeological heritage and is but one example of how the war and subsequent occupation attacked the very core of national pride. The museum was finally reopened six years after this tragic event, though by that point less than half of the looted exhibits had been recovered.

There is little doubt that the war has left Iraq worse off than before, including brutal sectarian warfare, a deterioration of women’s rights, greater religious fundamentalism and an increasingly authoritarian regime under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In spite of all this, Iraq’s long-standing artistic traditions are stronger than ever and continue to play a significant role in inspiring emerging art forms, outside and inside the country.

Over recent decades, a growing Iraqi diaspora community has blended traditional Iraqi art forms with influences from their experience in exile. One budding Iraqi artist, Hanaa Malallah, who lives in London, is explicit about the way her first-hand experiences of war have influenced her work. It is telling that her PhD thesis was titled ‘Logic Order in Ancient Mesopotamian painting,’ a perfect example of how new Iraqi art is often the product of Iraq’s classical heritage mixed with current social and political circumstances.

A number of initiatives have brought together Iraqi artists from all over the world and enabled them to share their experiences – through art. One such event is the London-based project Art and War: Responses to Iraq, which is running an exhibition from March 12-18, 2013, to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The exhibition will bring different Iraqi and British artists together to display works that have been influenced by personal experiences of the Iraq war.

Another initiative is the non-for-profit iNCiA. Founded in 1995 by the London-based Iraqi artist Maysaloun Faraj, it is ‘dedicated to advancing Iraqi art and the education of the public in Iraqi art as an integral part of world art’ through the ‘provision of exhibitions, literature, workshops, website and advocacy.’

Such projects seem to be springing up everywhere – the desire of Iraqi artists and musicians to remind the world of the great ‘Cradle of Civilization’ is clearly tangible.

While our TV screens might not show us this magnificent side of Iraq, new forms of technology and social networking are making it easier for both local and diaspora Iraqi artists to communicate and share ideas and experiences with each other and their growing audiences around the world.

Ilham al-Madfai’s beautiful hymn to Baghdad encapsulates the love and longing Iraqi artists feel toward their country. “What shall I say about you in the book of passion? For a thousand books are not enough to express how much I love you.”  Now more than ever, Iraqi musicians and artists are expressing a passion for their broken country.

 *Livia Bergmeijer is co-editor of Muftah’s Iraq, Iran, & Turkey pages