Contemporary Iraqi art is experiencing a kind of renaissance. After the trauma of decades of war and tyranny, and the exodus that set in train, attention is focusing on the emergence of a generation of artists whose creative outpouring in recent years has been borne of the suffering and devastation they have witnessed.
Iraq's creative diaspora is now being recognised in a comprehensive six-month show at Dubai's Meem gallery, curated by the man frequently called the "father of modern Arab art", the painter Dia Azzawi. The four-part show, which runs until April next year, gathers the work of 12 of the leading figures of the new generation who came of age in the decades of war.
Their work bears witness to the profound impact of the years of conflict and despotism on the consciousness of that generation, in what has become a phenomenal burst of creativity, much of it produced in exile. And it testifies to the formulation of a diverse and sometimes mesmerising range of individual visions, as evidence both of the traumatised response to the catastrophies of war and suffering, of the resilience of the creative spirit, and of the integrity of the artist's work in the face of disaster and tragedy.
"Most of these artists left the country in the mid-1990s, when sanctions got severe," says Azzawi. "The last of them would have left after the 2003 invasion. From observing the various movements, I chose 12 artists I felt were the most promising. They are mostly outsiders, mostly living abroad. It is a diaspora."
Most are in their 40s, and some participated in a series of recent exhibitions in the US, at the Texas Station Museum and at various galleries in New York, which also attempted to gauge the impact of war on their artistic vision.
"Recent history in Iraq is very important," says Azzawi. "Before that, the standard of life was good. The country is fundamentally very rich, but war has been such a major factor. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar were nothing compared to Iraq, in terms of the creativity, the money, and the history."
Azzawi himself fled Iraq in 1976, when the political direction in which his country was being led began to become apparent, he says. "Saddam had not yet assumed full power, but it was obvious he was calling the shots. It was clear the way the country was headed, that this was to be a one-party state."
He returned briefly to curate an exhibition in September 1980. But two days after his arrival, Iraqi tanks rolled across the plains into Iran, and as hostilities broke out Azzawi fled to London. He has remained there ever since.
"I have no interest in returning to Iraq now," he says. "The whole system was foisted on us by a foreign power. Those running it have an agenda no better than the one they are replacing."
Whatever the politics, the artists collected in the exhibition are disparate voices united by a national identity mostly forged in exile. Exile and homelands, both imaginary and remembered, become a pervasive theme.
"The whole place collapsed, and most artists left," says Azzawi. "Where they went, they had no language. They had to learn new languages and adapt to new societies. Out of this have come new artistic languages."
Much of the work is profoundly moving. It is at once deeply disturbing, coming as a harrowing testimony to the anguish of those years, and yet functions as a kind of cathartic thrust, in the various attempts to summon the ethereal, magical quality of the human spirit in the face of brute savagery and destruction.
Kareem Risan's paintings evoke this transient spirit through an intensive focus on concrete realities that, through the closeness of scrutiny, become rarefied into abstraction. He paints the very walls of Baghdad, their surfaces crumbling, their hues faded with discolourations and sullied with daubings.
The spectral grace of his colours - silvers, greys and olive greens - form a shimmering backdrop to the figural depictions he foregrounds. Stencilled letterings, redolent of the insignia of tanks, get obscured by the passing of time, by wear and tear, while half-obliterated snatches of Arabic graffiti hover there as ephemeral, broken commentary.
"Kareem was one of the last to leave, and held out for as long as he could until he was forced out in 2003 by violence and sectarian differences," says Azzawi.
"Much of his work focuses on the aftermath of the use of depleted uranium in US bombing campaigns, as well as what he witnessed of the looting when order collapsed."
Risan's focus becomes directly political in his satirically childlike depictions of US troops, his shaven-headed cartoon GIs and metonymically displaced "boots on the ground" that hover in the shifting sands amid his city walls. It's a jejune motif, faux-naive and sinister rather than comic in its tendency: these children's scribblings are troubling rather than charming.
Childlike forms recur in disturbing ways in the paintings of Modhir Ahmed, whose graphic blocks of colour bear the imprint of his years in printmaking school in Warsaw. Again, we find a subtle language of colour in the muted mid-tones of the backdrop that come alive in the reds of the carnage that takes centre stage.
Figures are again depicted in the crude, blunt hand of a child, but appear engaged in disturbing actions, deeply inappropriate, we sense, to a child's vision. Here a man appears to be throttling a woman, or here, pummeling the life out of a lover, maybe - arms round throat - so that these strangulations and couplings testify somehow to the violent hysteria and brutal passion unleashed by war; much in the spirit of Picasso's terrifying vision of air raids and blitzkrieg in Guernica.
Cubism and abstract Expressionism were influential in these painters' artistic development. Azzawi himself has been called the "Picasso of the Middle East", and there is perhaps a derivative quality in the Cubist exercises of his earlier work.
According to Azzawi, it was only with the generation that graduated in the 1960s that the radical new art forms coming out of Europe and America first became absorbed in the emerging artistic consciousness in the Arab world. Iraqi artists were at the forefront of that development.
"The first contacts of my generation with European art were momentous," Azzawi recalls.
"We had nothing like that in our culture. We had miniatures, but they were more illustrations. To build up a style, you needed to know what's going on in Europe, and to become aware of techniques such as Cubism and Surrealism, to express your feeling."
Surrealism would have an influential effect on formulating the outlook of the artists being shown at Meem. Nazar Yayha's paintings deploy a kind of absurdist Surrealism in their sequencing, with triptychs mutating from human figure to vessel to fish for instance, in a homage to the poetry of Mahdi al Jawahiri, particularly his ode to the Tigris river, O Tigris.
Concentric circles recur, suggesting a kind of geometric pattern redolent of the rippling of water. Some kind of mathematical laws seem also to govern his tessellating patterns of fish, or the disturbing portraits of corpses that recur at apparently arbitrary intervals, repeating throughout the series. And again, there are those familiar dreamy hues, drab greens and sepias, to summon the faded quality of a remembered homeland.
Something similar is going on in the photomontages of Nedim Kufi, inspired once more by displacement and absence. Here, however, the sequencing is heavily pointed, so that a family snapshot of child with father, or baby with sibling, repeats itself in a second, airbrushed version where the subject has vanished, leaving his companion in the lurch.
The magic realism of authors such as Milan Kundera comes to mind, in his descriptions of Prague after the soviet occupation of 1968, say in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Photos of politicians who fell out with the regime were airbrushed mercilessly, but telling hints of their presence sometimes survived.
Similar things happened in Saddam's regime, of course, as Kufi's clever dramatisations demonstrate, so that young boy and father walk by a stream arm in arm, or play around at home, but now the boy has vanished, leaving his father absurdly gesturing at nothing. Amid the sepia-tinted nostalgia of a faded memory, a figure's presence - in this case, the artist's self - has been rubbed out, and what at first seems an acerbic gesture of wit is belied by a cruel, merciless truth: that of a family left without their son, grappling ridiculously at air.
The narratives played out in Hanaa Malallah's work can be seen in still more literal terms, with the burnt-out cinders of her charred canvases shot with overtures of war. These are fragments of found objects, salvaged from the street as they blew about when Malallah found them, returning to a Baghdad bombed out by US air strikes.
Her tattered, torched collages of fabrics are a literal testament to the ravages and displacements of war. "Hanaa is involved with seeing the remains of her country," says Azzawi. "She is concerned with history in terms of its cultural and artistic value. But her work changes completely with the invasion, and her message becomes starker, more minimal - a response to the war and killing."
Azzawi played a formative role in the New Vision movement of painters in Iraq in the 1960s. "We formed traditional artists' groups to forge an identity. My generation found we were different from our teachers. For us, the search for an Iraqi identity was limited. We needed to talk about the whole of Arab art, not just Iraqi art."
After finishing his studies in archaeology in Baghdad he formed the movement with his contemporary Jawad Salim and became a pivotal figure in the later One Dimension group with Shaker al Said.
"I started working obsessively with identity, and really went back to my history, particularly Sumerian literature and Arabic calligraphy," he recalls. "I went on to use this, but not as a main topic, as had been done before, but as the starting point of abstract composition. This became part of our struggle to express identity, using these tools in a dialogue with history."
His contemporaries were far more politicised than the preceding generation, he recalls, living as they did through the Arab-Israeli conflict, the war of 1967, and its aftermath in the Palestinian resistance. "Many of my friends went to Beirut, writers and poets such as Mahmoud Darwish. We wanted to be part of that struggle. We thought the only way to create a style was to work together and understand each other. That marked us out in a different way of thinking from the previous generation."
Azzawi has just been the subject of a retrospective with the Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, which formed the Meem gallery's exhibition at the Abu Dhabi art fair, accompanied by a monograph catalogue commemorating both artists' work.
The third installment of Meem's retrospective in Dubai opens in February, with the work of the artists Himat Ali, Amar Dawod and Delair Shaker going on show. The fourth and concluding exhibition features Azzawi himself, alongside fellow veterans of Arab modernism, Ali Talib and Rafa al Nasiri. The recognition is timely, and comes as tribute to a momentous achievement.