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our prize

Post #330 • July 26, 2004, 2:36 PM • 29 Comments

Read this: Art Imitates Iraqi Life in All Its Chaos and Misery, by Jeffrey Gettleman for the New York Times.

[Adnan] Abbas has spongy black curls that he wipes away from his forehead when he works. He looks at people the same way he looks deep into his canvas. He comes from a traditional Shiite family of six brothers and five sisters, all working class - carpenters, drivers, auto parts dealers. When he recently visited his family in Karbala, a Shiite pilgrimage site south of Baghdad, his father, wearing a long white beard and a black tunic, hugged Mr. Abbas so tightly that he nearly crushed the sunglasses floating on top of his mop of hair.

"I love you," said his father, Abdul, who used to paint boats and Arab horsemen and once dreamed of being an artist, too. "Your artwork is our prize."



Jerome du Bois

July 26, 2004, 10:27 PM


Interesting excerpt you selected. Since he comes from a traditional Shi'ite family, I wonder how many of his five sisters are carpenters, drivers, or auto parts dealers? My own guess is zero, but I could be wrong. It's that word . . . traditional.

Here's another excerpt, quoting Mr. Abbas:

"See this nose?" Mr Abbas said, pointing to a woman's face in one of his paintings. "It's a long nose. It's a Sumerian nose. It's our nose."

Here's hoping that female nose, and all attached to it, come out from under the hijab and all oppressive covering to blow Islam to the hell and gone it belongs, as well as all ideologies which subvert or subsume the sovereign individual to protect the fears of powerful men.

I wonder if Abdul Abbas, Mr. Abbas' father, is as proud of his daughters as he is of his sons? I hope so, but I doubt it.

And the prize is freedom for all, not just Muslims. It's for Christians, animists, Mandaens, nonbelievers, and Jews -- if there were any Jews in Iraq, which there aren't unless they're with the coalition. And for all women.




July 26, 2004, 11:19 PM

Amen to the nose - I'm more interested in the mouth, of course, and I'm sure you are too. I belive that there is an excellent chance for Islam's transcending its hard-wired sexism just like Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism are doing.

As it happens, there's a long history of Jews in Iraq. Believe it or not, Saddam Hussein mostly left them alone.



July 26, 2004, 11:41 PM

I meant to add that to whatever extent the younger Mr. Abbas represents his colleagues, nuanced thinking and a general love of humanity seem ready to assert themselves. Artists are famous for being social progressives; maybe it will all begin at the Bagdhad Academy of Art.



July 27, 2004, 12:57 AM

I don't know what I am talking about here, so I am only guessing, based on observing human behaviour, but i think most Arabs want to see more freedom and normal life and even western-style progress. But they are held hostage by a pervading, brutal, medieval gang mentality, practiced in the name of Islam throughout the Middle East, and no one can seem to do anything about it. If that could be broken, things would change overnight.


that guy in the back row

July 27, 2004, 1:42 AM

This painter shouldn't be in the Times. The author makes the common error, assuming that anything on canvas MUST be art. This report should be in the people section if anywhere, not the culture section. The Iraqis have too rich a history to bother trying to compete with the historically western tradition of oil painting. This artist's work (although you can't see much of it from the Time's article) reminds me of those hoards of Chinese painters who make acres of paintings, but not an inch of art. This tommyrot isn't worth the canvas it's painted on.



July 27, 2004, 1:51 AM

My wife lived in Baghdad during her elementary school days in the 70s. She was there when Saddam, ahem, "became president." (And I don't want to hear any comments from the peanut gallery about Armenian noses.)

She's actually lived in a few of those countries. In one of them, her brothers kept a German Shepherd (called Rambo). If you know anything about Islam, you know this pet made them a bit unpopular. She left the region after 11th grade (she attended the British high school in Kuwait), running as fast as she could, never looking back, without even having received her high school diploma.

Today she's one of the top cancer surgeons in the United States (meaning one of the top cancer surgeons in the world). We just returned from a week in London, and she alternately laughed (with joy) and cried (with emotion) every time she looked at her U.S. passport. Now she chuckles a little every time she sees a rich patient from that part of the world. (A female doctor examining a male patient is unthinkable for them "back home.") You should have been there when one of her patients' sons offered 100 camels for her. (True story.)

Back to the subject at hand, many people fail to realize that the Iraqi people are the most progressive, secular, cosmopolitan, and educated people of that region. It's not necessarily fair to tar all of them with the same brush as some of their more conservative neighbors. There are certainly many conservative and traditional families in that country, but they are neither the majority, nor the uncontested rulers, as they are in many of their neighbors' lands. I have great faith that they'll get on their feet in good time, and lead the region in establishing a modern liberal democracy, even if it takes a little time to fight back the conservative tide that seems to have flowed there recently. I look forward to the art their citizens will produce.



July 27, 2004, 2:25 AM

P.S. We wanted to visit London back in the mid-90s, when my wife still held a Jordanian passport. She had to fill out a multi-page application to renew the passport, plus a four-page form to receive a U.K. visa. (Those of you who've traveled to Europe know that when you're a U.S. citizen, all you need is a U.S. passport to get off the plane.) Her father had to fill out the passport renewal form because her Arabic skills are poor to none. We saw that he'd written some words in English like "Engineer," and realized it was a spot for "husband's profession." He also attached a Post-It note to inform us that the application required me, the applicant's husband, to attach a letter of permission. At least we can look back and laugh about it now.



July 27, 2004, 2:28 AM

Guy, that's a heck of a conclusion based on two images of the work, more or less taken over the shoulder of the artist, at 72dpi. It looks like protest art, which I think I would be making myself in their position, and I'm sure the art will become more diverse once things settle down. I'd think you would find the part about the field trip to the Tigris ("Look at this! Nature!") touching. As for them not being able to get in on the Western painting tradition, that's poppycock. Cultures borrow from each other freely, and hallelujah.


that guy in the back row

July 27, 2004, 3:24 AM

Franklin: 72 dpi or not it sucks as art. As for your "everybody borrows from everyone else", true but some do it better than others. This is about as touching as those trinkets you get at Bay-Side. I just don't see the connection between this story and your blog? I for one have seen enough lovey dovey protest art. (I'm not sure, if what this guy does qualifies as protest art) Not to long ago Art in America ran a big story called "Embedded Artists in Baghdad" or some dreck, it had the same problem this stuff has. I want to enjoy the fruits of our occupation, yes, but come on. I want Iraqi art with guts, like the Assyrians once made. Although, I like the image of G.I Jane getting her portrait painted, years later she will be saying to herself: " yep, ol' Abdul was right, his son was no Picasso but I look great in camo."



July 27, 2004, 3:49 AM

Come on, Guy, have a little sympathy. These people until recently could have been tortured to death for expressing criticism of their regime on canvas. The steam is due to come out of the pot for a while now that the lid is off. And the protest art you've seen has been made by Americans, I'll bet. Abbas has been in the deep doodoo for real.

The guy can draw, at least; I thought of Julio Larraz for the first image and Hung Liu for the second. Not capitol-G Great, but serviciable, and not bad for a school that has not had extensive contact with the world outside Saddam's Iraq.



July 27, 2004, 4:56 AM

Guy, our resident art rightwinger, is pointing up an interesting conflict between what is true and what is sympathetic.



July 27, 2004, 5:19 AM

Well, while it's nice to have someone around that makes me look less reactionary by comparison; I just think there's a time and a place for everything. It's true that a four-year old kid is going to die one day, but you don't tell him that. Sometimes you gotta cut people some slack.



July 27, 2004, 7:15 AM

But Franklin, slack is just what was being cut by the writer of the piece. I have all the sympathy in the world for the kids who are trying to function in these circumstances but somewhat less for a Times writer on the prowl for a human interest filler who got you to bite on the ""art triumphs in hell" subtext he was dishing to us. What Guy did was isolate the question of the quality of the art being used for the spin, which, unfortunately, doesn't amount to much. He didn't have to say it and make himself look heartless, but it is true nevertheless.



July 27, 2004, 2:51 PM

Art in America this month has an article on Baghdad ("Art Against the Odds"). I have to say that that I'm unimpressed by the work reproduced. But the fact that Iraqi artists are making art for other Iraqis, not for us, is so obvious that i think Guy is joking (right?).

"Here's hoping that female nose, and all attached to it, come out from under the hijab and all oppressive covering to blow Islam to the hell and gone it belongs . . ." said Jerome du Bois earlier.

16 hours and 12 comments go by, and nobody has read this comment that has any objection to it? What the hell is going on here?



July 27, 2004, 3:00 PM

I don't think either was kidding, but Jerome's statement may be too over the top to invite much serious reaction.


Anna L. Conti

July 27, 2004, 8:28 PM

In my west coast copy of the NYT, the story did not run in the Arts section, but in the International section, under the subhead, "The Reach of War: Seeking Inspiration and Dealing with Abductions." So I was wondering, are some of you saying that non-arts reporters should not be allowed to decide who is or isn't an artist? Or is the issue the quality of the work, in which case are you saying that only artists of a certain level of quality can be described as artists in the NYT? Or is that you want art stories to be confined to the Arts section, where they can be patrolled by the art experts?



July 27, 2004, 9:16 PM

No one was saying these things, at least with any emphasis. Franklin thought the story was interesting so he made it the subject of the daily blog, and Back Row Guy said the art was no good and then said at one point that it didn't belong in the Times or at least, I guess what he assumed was the art section of the Times, but his main point was that the art was no good. The Times has big art section features on crappy art all the time, so I didn't exactly get that point. Then Franklin said these were nasty things to say, and i pointed out that we had an interesting disjuncture between what was true and what was sympathetic. What are your thoughts, Anna?



July 27, 2004, 9:39 PM

I'm a regular reader of Anna's blog. She's posting for the first time here. Welcome, Anna.


that guy in the back row

July 27, 2004, 9:47 PM

Good point oldpro, I should have made it more clear that this article is typical of the sludge the Times spoon-feeds us daily, regardless of which section it shows up in. If the old grey lady can't figure out which article goes where we've lost something inherently valuable. And if this painter is international news, it certainly looks like we have.

I wish I was kidding.


Phil Isteen

July 27, 2004, 9:58 PM

NPR had a radio story a couple weeks back
about a Pakistani artist - I was curious to see
what they were talking about. Here is the link:

Comments, anyone?



July 27, 2004, 10:45 PM

I heard that story too, Phil. An admirable sublimation of some pretty dreary circumstances, for sure. There is only a very small reproduction on the page. The painting looks fairly standard, a little overworked and on the sweet side, paintwise. Nothing remarkable. This is another one of those "life goes on, even art" human interest numbers the liberal press likes to feature. I have see a couple others, some of them about dance or music. I find them patronizing, for some reason. (The word "liberal" here is descriptive, not accusatory).


Anna L. Conti

July 27, 2004, 11:01 PM

Thanks, Franklin.

About the NYT story - on the issue of art quality, I'd say it's nearly impossible to make a judgment on this artist's work, based on a newspaper photo that shows the artist with part of a sculpture obscuring part of a painting. But it doesn't matter if the art is good or bad because the story is not about the art, or even this particular artist. The story is about one segment of the population (young Iraqi artists in Baghdad) dealing with the effects of war. Seems more like a story for the International section than the Arts section. I think it's a good idea to place at least one story like this among the four pages of news about the war crimes tribunal in Yugoslavia, the war on drugs in Brazil, court cases in Mexico and Iran, refugees in Sweden, and other news from Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan, Palestine, and so forth. Troop movements, governmental legislation, and natural disasters are the kind of thing we recognize as "news", but smaller, more personal stories can convey the truth as well. I was glad to read the article when I saw it on Sunday, for the simple reason that I identified with the main characters, as artists, and their issues of inspiration and lack of space & materials. It made it easier to enter the rest of the story. And that's the point of a good "human interest" piece.


that guy in the back row

July 27, 2004, 11:54 PM

[It made it easier to enter the rest of the story. And that's the point of a good "human interest" piece.] If you want an easier time time entering the rest of the story pull the wax out of your eyes and read between the lines. Correct me if I'm wrong about this Ann, but It sounds like you are looking for ways to make the war more palatable. I think a story like this takes us away from the real story in iraq, but if it makes you feel better. Enjoy! It is always fridays at the fun house at the times. Everybody's a winner.



July 28, 2004, 12:18 AM

And you, Guy, sound like you've gone off your meds. I don't understand what you think Anna (two a's) will find when she "pulls the wax out of [her] eyes" - I suggest that the fact that she sees something different than you is not an indicator that she can't see. I don't understand what prevents the above from being part of the "real story" - it seems to be happening, along with the mayhem and death, so why not report on it?

Robert Henri talked about two streams of history, one which ocillates between peace and war, and another, of which artists are a part, that only ever advances. I linked to the above because I too was once a kid in art school and my folks were proud of me. I feel some brotherhood with Adnan Abbas, and I'd be pleased if he wasn't killed in one of the myriad ways currently available to him.



July 28, 2004, 12:39 AM

"...gone off your meds"? Franklin, for you that is positively violent!


Anna L. Conti

July 28, 2004, 1:13 AM

No, guy in the back row, I'm not trying to make the war more palatable. I'm trying to understand it. After a certain point, I don't find it helpful to hear more bulletins about the number of bombs, number of dead, and political jockeying behind well-guarded walls. Stories about individuals sound like part of "the real story" to me. There are multiple paths to the real. I'm curious - what is your view of "the real story in Iraq" and how does this story about the young Baghdad artists take us away from it?



July 28, 2004, 4:46 AM

Wow - if that remark has become as close as I get to violence, I'm making some progress as a human being. I have authored much worse.



July 28, 2004, 6:18 AM

Here are some "War Art" links. They all come with poems, but text will not be displayed with your computer unless fonts are installed, but you should be able to see the pictures.



Mother and Child
translation: (just for the last one)
buried under burning houses
parents abondoned children, children abondoned parents
husbands abondoned wives, wives abondened husbands
to escape

that was the true picture of the bomb
but surprisingly i have seen many mothers
holding their children in their arms tightly
and although mothers were dead
the children in the arms were alive

Index is here


Jerome du Bois

July 28, 2004, 8:17 AM


16 hours and 12 comments go by, and nobody has read this comment [about blowing Islam to hell and gone] that has any objection to it? What the hell is going on here?

And now it's 28 comments and . . . eleventy-two hours, or so. Point me to one mosque in the world which allows men and women to worship side by side at the same time and I will retreat exactly one inch. (There's a woman in West Virginia who just last week boldy went where no woman like her went before: through the front door of her mosque. In 2004.) Otherwise, I will defend women until the cowards either run away or choose to speak up.

This is an art blog, after all. It's not about politics, except as it may conform to "the chronicles of an artist in the world." But I cannot keep silent when Islam and its inherent, necessary misogyny get any kind of a pass. That's when I open my big mouth. I don't apologize for it. So, Franklin posted this "prize," and I jumped on it. (Thanks for the correction about Jews in Iraq, my man. Your tribe never ceases to amaze me. No wonder Ha-Shekhinah -- or whoever guards the divine in the human -- loves your crew.)

I thank Franklin for his generous heart (since he hasn't deleted me so far), which is far more patient than mine.


Jerome du Bois



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