Iraqi Art Comes to SoHo

A Room with a View into Baghdad
By Shuka Kalantari, Tyler Mitter and Annie Shreffler

A new exhibit at the Pomegranate art gallery in SoHo gives Americans the chance to more fully understand life in Baghdad for Iraqis, why many flee and what is lost with every day that the city experiences more violence.

Images of Baghdad in the news show neighborhoods reduced to rubble and tanks rolling through abandoned streets. It is easy for Americans to believe Baghdad, once known as the cradle of knowledge, has been left for dead. But artists live and work there, and bear witness to what their life is like.

Watch this audio slideshow of Thamir Dawood Al Sudani, an Iraqi artist, discussing his art and the travails finding refugee status.

The show is called “Oil on Landscape: Art From Wartime Contemporaries of Baghdad.” The curator, Christopher J. Brownfield, served until 2007 in Iraq, first with the Navy and then as an energy consultant for the State Department. While he lived in the Green Zone, Brownfield met artists who work in Baghdad despite the dangerous conditions. They exchanged ideas, books and art and became friends. It was too dangerous for Brownfield to attend art shows located outside the safe zone, so they brought art to him. 

It was through their art that Brownfield grasped the condition of life in Baghdad and the artists’ lament of the city’s destruction. Brownfield decided Americans needed to see those images too. He started shipping Iraqi art to the States.

Twenty-five panels by Mohammed Al Hamaday, called Laylat an Nar (Night of Fire), document with brutal, abstract images, the night of “Shock and Awe,” the first US bombing campaign in Baghdad. Each five foot high panel depicts terrifying imagery: black handprints over the Iraqi flag; prevalent hues of fire orange and blood red; graffiti; detached, fearful faces and smoke gray hiding traces of ladders and windows. The series overwhelms viewers with its confusion, breadth and color.

Watch Christopher Brownfield, a man who served in Iraq, discuss how he decided to ship Iraqi art back to the USA.

The violence in Baghdad is what prompted the painter Thamir Dawood al Sudani to escape to Jordan with his wife and children. In Baghdad, he had a studio in a famous art center. When several artist friends were killed or went missing, he decided it was time to leave. As a working artist in Jordan, he showed his work twice, in 2006 and 2008.

Now Sudani is stuck in the U.S. He came by invitation to participate in a show in Delaware. But since his visit, Jordanian authorities have issued a new visa system that prevents him from rejoining his family. Now an unwitting refugee, Sudani said through an interpreter, that all he wants is “a small room where I can make art and live with my family in peace.”

Sudani’s admits a touch of sadness has crept into his art, since he lost so many friends and relatives in the war. Here in the US, memories of what life was like in Baghdad seem surreal and he struggles to make Americans understand what he and his family went through over there.

Watch Oded Halahmy talk about Iraqi art and how the loft he's had since the 70's transformed into an art gallery in SoHo.

Sudani is one of thousands of Iraqis trying to find a peaceful existence. A recent report on asylum statistics said that 60,000 Iraqis are leaving their homes every month because of violence. Despite efforts to resettle Iraqis in countries including the US, Germany, Australia and England, 95 percent of Iraqis are dwelling in the Middle East. The dramatic population swell in neighboring Syria and Jordan is pushing those societies towards a breaking point and no solution is in sight.

Pomegranate Gallery owner Oded Halahmy, a native Iraqi living in New York, said he will do whatever he can to help these Iraqi artists: the gallery’s prices are relatively low so the pieces sell and he sends them one hundred percent of the profits.

“I can show the American public their lives. I feel for the people in Iraq and I’m going to help them,” he said.

Halahmy is a recognized sculptor in his own right. His works appear in museums around the world, including the Guggenheim. He founded Pomegranate Gallery in SoHo during the 70s art heyday and partied with outsider art notables like Warhol and Basquiat.

Halahmy opened Pomegranate gallery to expose more Americans to contemporary Middle Eastern Art—not the ancient art most people tend to associate with the land of the Euphrates, but modern art created by eye-witnesses in a Baghdad experiencing loss, war, fear and renewal.

“If we all recognize that the arts can be a powerful unifier of disparate cultures, the chance for peace in Iraq, the Middle East, and around the world will be greatly enhanced,” Halahmy said.

Along another wall in the gallery, the closely-cropped, photographic quality pencil drawings of Sadik Jaffar, (Sadik means “one who sees the truth”), capture black and white scenes of Iraqis going about quiet lives. They sit together, talk and smile at the viewer.

One gallery visitor, an Iraqi who gained asylum and now lives in New York, appreciated Fadhel Abass’s A Meeting of Friends, an oil painting of three men on a bench sharing a hookah pipe and chatting over what seems to be nothing of particular consequence.

“That is a very typical scene from Baghdad,” he said with a half smile.  

Another guest at the gallery, Julie Draksler, said she is taken with the scenes of what artists in Baghdad have watched happen to their home.

“If other Americas came out to this gallery and looked at these works and talked to some of the artists....you get it. I think Iraq needs its artists. That city was the ancient city of knowledge, and now it’s rubble.”

Click on the names below to hear what people have to say about the new Iraqi art exhibit at Pomegranate Gallery in SoHo.