The Forgotten Era

Iraq's Stolen Art & Project

The Forgotten Era:
Iraq's Stolen Arts & Project

Reported by: Nada Shabout
Iraq's National Museum re-opened in 2009. Thousands of items remain lost.
source: NY Times

The destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage is a subject which is rarely mentioned in American and other western media. The occasional mention in academic circles of the wanton destruction, lack of protection and neglect of Iraq's archaeological sites and museum collections, has always glossed over the destruction of the modern cultural heritage of a country which was a leader in the development of a regional and an Arab response to the changes of modalities of the twentieth century. The world seems to forget that the "cradle of civilization" is the land of a contemporary country with a thriving culture.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, Iraq had hosted many important regional and international cultural events. The cultural efflorescence that resulted from these interactions produced invaluable works of art which became the permanent collection of the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art, formally known as the Saddam Center for the Arts. This unique collection represented the development and evolution of modern Iraqi art in its various movements and stages. Iraqi artists were leading the Arab world in successfully forging a modern national style and provided a model for other Arab artists to follow in forming their own visual identity. The collection included several experiments by Iraqi women artists who introduced unique visual styles in their negotiations of national identities. The work of Madiha Omar of the 1940s was the precursor to the popular trend of modern visual manipulations of the Arabic letter. Suad Al-Attar's work introduced an introspective dimension to visual folkloric investigations partaken by her male colleagues. In addition to Iraqi and other important regional works of art, the museum also held a collection of very valuable works by Picasso, Mirs and other modern European masters. All of the museums' collection was destroyed, looted or lost.

The Iraqi Museum of Modern Art was one of the buildings severely damaged during the US bombing raids over Baghdad. The museums' collection of over 7,000 works of art was viciously looted as the Baath regime collapsed and the occupying power was lax in providing security to protect Iraq's important cultural institutions. Based on my investigation and on the information I collected, a number of the works were smuggled outside the country while others are still being traded on the black market in Baghdad. Many have petitioned the various offices of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the US State departments for help in stopping the pillaging of the museums and the recovery of the stolen works of art, but the official position of the occupying power has always been insistent on the voluntary return of the stolen works and, thus, nothing was done. Only recently did the new Iraqi government authorize the repossession of the works by force through the aid of the recently formed Iraqi police. About 1,700 works have been recovered and are in the custody of the Ministry of Culture. The majority of these works are severely damaged and are in desperate need of restoration. Furthermore, it is not certain whether they will succeed or fail to retrieve the majority of the stolen works. Luckily, however, a number of successful individual efforts were taken by concerned Iraqi citizens and are helping in locating, acquiring and protecting the missing pieces

Successful examples, limited as they may be, abound. Almost immediately after the looting of museums, some works were purchased at personal cost by Iraqi gallery owners with the publicly stated intension of preserving them until they could be returned to a new Iraqi Art Museum. A wider and more efficient effort was organized by the renowned Iraqi sculptor Mohammed Ghani. Returning to Baghdad weeks after the collapse of the former regime, Ghani found the Iraqi Museum of Modern Arts in ruins with mounds of shattered sculptures and broken or empty frames where canvases were hastily cut out. With the help of his colleagues and students, he initiated and funded a campaign of buying back some of the stolen works in the neighborhood surrounding the museum. They were able to recover important works by renowned artists, such Jawad Salim's wooden statue of "Motherhood," for the mere price of $100.

Failing to secure any aid from the CPA, Ghani approached and solicited funds from friends, personal acquaintances, and other concerned individuals within the Iraqi community. His plan was simple. His eager students were to locate and purchase the stolen works. The individuals who donated the funds for the effort signed an agreement, retained by Ghani, establishing them as the temporary custodians of the specific works purchased with their money until the Museum is re-instituted. In return, these individuals will be publicly acknowledged as donors for the arts. He has been able to retrieve a considerable number of works in various conditions and they are currently stored in private Iraqi houses. Mr. Ghani's effort persist, but, unfortunately, the price of the stolen works continues to rise while his limited funds are being depleted, making his task slower and much harder to complete.

But time is very critical. With the longer lapse of time most of the works will vanish into private collections and the visual history of modern Iraq and the transformation of its aesthetics would be lost forever. Even with good intentions, many of the works have either been already damaged beyond recovery or face the risk of severe damage due to the lack of the controlled environment required to preserve them under the current conditions of a destroyed infrastructure and shortage of resources. During the hot temperatures of summer, most households and establishments would only have electricity for few hours everyday.

Dr. Abbas Jawar is the new director for the planned Museum of Modern Art. His is operating under the administration of the Institute of National Heritage, but no funds have been allocated to retrieve, restore or document the works previously held at the museum or that have been recovered so far by the government or by individuals. Furthermore, while the Museum of Modern Art has been a government institution and administered by the Ministry of Information and Culture since its inception, there is a discussion of converting it into a self-sufficient private institute, and thus eliminating the much needed government funding altogether.

There are controversial reasons for the government's abandonment of the Iraq's works of modern art. Art works of the last twenty years might be perceived by the authorities as problematic because of concern about the political identity of patronage of the artist. In other words, the fear is that the policy of de-baathification might be applied in determining the value and worth of a visual work of art.

To my knowledge there exists no official or comprehensive catalogue of the Museum's collection since its archives were destroyed with the building. One of the consequences of this is the inability of the authorities, including the Interpol, to track the stolen works. When I relayed the information I received about attempts to sell specific stolen works by the artist Faiq Hassan in Amman, Jordan to the Interpol, I was told that unless concise and authenticated full information and images are provided, they cannot even add the stolen items to their database of stolen works of art which is published on their website. At this level of complacency, many valuable pieces will disappear without even documentation.

In addition to the Museum of Modern Art, there are a considerable number of artworks that were housed in other structures. At the moment, their fate is unknown.

The following is a partial list:

1. Saddam International Airport contains 50 artworks, mostly murals executed by prominent Iraqi artists in early 1980's.

2. The Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad contains over 20 monumental works (painting and sculpture) and some 900 original prints distributed in the luxurious bedrooms and suites of that hotel.

3. The Republic Palace (Saddam Hussein's Residence) contains a museum with unknown numbers of artworks, craft, gifts, and documents. It is a well known fact among Iraqi artists that a special joint committee from the ministry of information and the palace used to acquire artworks from major exhibitions in Baghdad for that museum. This tradition continued for many years (1980-1990). There is no published official record for the art collection at the palace, but it is a sizable one.

4. Conference Palace, Baghdad with uncertain number of artworks.

5. Public Monuments: Among the most known ones in Baghdad are Jawad Salim's monument and Faiq Hassan's mosaic mural in al-Tahrir Plaza in Baghdad, the "Shaheed Monument" of Isma`il al-Turk and "Unknown Soldier" and "Victory Monument" of Khalid al-Rahhal.
Please Donate
Your contribution to this project is being collected by the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS), an independent, tax-exempt organization in Cambridge, MA.

Please make your check payable to "I.N.E.A.S." and mail it to:

P.O. Box 425125
Cambridge, MA. 02142 USA

This is a collective voluntary effort and we need your support. It is crucial that the project connect with professionals in the field working in Europe, Arab countries, Iraq, and other parts of the world that might produce significant support to this subject. Also please forward this message to any and all concerned individuals, artists, and intellectuals who might be of help.

Please address all inquiries and suggestions to the author of this article:

Nada Shabout, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Art History
University of North Texas
P.O. Box 305100
Denton, TX 76203

Project Update as of February 2006
Due to the absence of official institutions in IRAQ that handle the retrieval of stolen work, we've decided to use the money toward the purchasing of educational DVDs for the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Dr. Nada Shabout, initiator of the project, has received the funds to purchase the DVDs and make them available to Baghdad's Art Institute during her visit to Baghdad this June.