Contemporary Art Response: Iraq

By Simurgh Staff

Much of Iraq has become a stronghold for ISIS’s forces, profoundly impacting artists in the country. As a result of Iraq’s position under ISIS control, the museum and art worlds latched themselves to artists’ discussions of what destruction does to the heritage and culture of an area. With Iraqi museums and art heavily influenced by Western society, Iraqi artists must find a way to balance between their own cultural heritage and expression, ISIS violence, and Western influence on their culture. 

Destruction in Mosul.
“ISOF APC on the street of Mosul, Northern Iraq, Western Asia. 16 November, 2016.” 
Photo by Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 4.0.

“…war didn’t kill Mosul

and that, on the contrary,

it’s living a full-on renaissance.”

When ISIS forces took over Mosul, Iraq, they destroyed much of the Mosul Museum. When ISIS was pushed out of Mosul, the museum was able to reopen part of the building and install a contemporary art exhibition titled Return to Mosul.1 As the sole exhibition in a still-wrecked museum complex, Return to Mosul proves “‘that war didn’t kill Mosul and that, on the contrary, it’s living a full-on renaissance.’”2 Many of the works that were included in the exhibition demonstrate themes of conflict, culture, and revival.3 

Iraq, like much of the Middle East, has extensive global reach when it comes to culture. The widespread representation of Iraqi culture is the result of the constantly changing political and military spheres of this region.

“Pavillon de l’Iraq (54ème biennale de Venise). Walid Siti, Meso’” 
Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. CC BY 2.0

This is a concentration of Walid Siti‘ s art, which also considers loss of culture and its effects on family and community dynamics. His works are surreal, a style that reduces art into a dream-like and fantastical manner. “The idea is that when you lose something, you long for it and recreate it in a surrealist way, so that’s why the set becomes surreal, an imaginary landscape.”4 He seeks to produce metaphors that are historical in their roots and are transformed into something new, paralleling how contemporary Iraqi culture is being shaped.5 These metaphors draw upon the “…formal elements of architecture inspired by the cultural heritage and current rush to ‘reconstruct’ in the Middle East region.”6 

The international art community has provided safe platforms for Iraqi artists to showcase their art without restrictions and to bring awareness to the issues addressed in their work. At the 2017 Venice Beinnelle: Iraqi Pavilion in Italy and Iraqi Artists in Exile at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in the United States, Iraqi artists displayed works to challenge the “violent Iraqi” stereotype, while preserving their culture through contemporary art.11, 12 

  1. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Land on Fire 
  5. Walid Siti: Artist Statement 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Iraqi Artist Makes a Point with Virtual Paintballs 
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Ancient Iraqi Art On Display in Italy at Venice Biennale 
  12. Iraqi Artists in Exile