Gallery owner resolves to keep culture alive; War in Baghdad counts art a potential casualty



By Hamza Hendawi

BAGHDAD – By all rights, the Hewar art gallery should be a casualty of war.

Months go by without a single painting or sculpture being sold. The gallery’s cafe – once a noisy meeting ground for Baghdad’s intelligentsia – now sees just a few hardy regulars.

The owner’s balance sheet shows losses of up to $400 a month – a sum considered a good monthly wage.

But something keeps Qassim Sabti from locking the doors for good.

It’s part stubbornness, part nostalgia and a dash of belief that, just maybe, better times are ahead – the same recipe that kept a handful of other cultural guardians, such as book sellers, poets and theater troupes, from abandoning Baghdad during the years of fighting and upheaval.

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Now, with violence on the wane, the city’s struggling artist community looks for signs that their patrons could someday return and the discussions in the coffee houses could again be about their latest works rather than the latest troubles.

The gallery is a bellwether.

The Hewar, or Dialogue, is perhaps the best known cultural crossroads in Iraq.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the two-story building became the main salon for debates and exhibitions basking in the heady freedoms that were long bottled up by the regime.

But as the insurgency took hold in Baghdad, the gallery’s fate mirrored the rest of the capital. People with some savings left for Syria or Jordan. Checkpoints and blast walls rose up in the gallery’s neighborhood. Sunni and Shiite artists – bound by lifetime friendships – took pains to avoid discussing the sectarian bloodletting.

Sabti estimates at least 70 percent of Iraq’s artists and intellectuals are out of Iraq.

“My gallery, like Baghdad, is under siege,” said the silver-haired Sabti, a Sunni Arab married to a Shiite. He still walks with a limp from childhood polio.

But Sabti, 54, has not stopped organizing exhibitions – 29 in all since 2003. “The Iraqis kept coming but none can afford to buy art,” he sighed.

Sabti arranges for financial support to artists from an association of painters he runs, and some of the artists who exhibit at Hewar have taken advances against the future sale of their work.

Dozens of pieces are stored in back rooms under a layer of dust – like the rows of empty chairs in the gallery’s top floor where young people occasionally take music and painting classes funded by a private U.S.-based organization.

“Security has undeniably improved, but people don’t yet have the confidence to leave their homes unless it’s necessary,” he said while sipping a coffee on a recent January morning. “People are barely surviving on their salaries, and these are the lucky ones with jobs.”

Last month, Sabti tried to drum up business for the gallery by offering art to the capital’s foreign diplomats in the heavily protected Iraqi Foreign Ministry.

“We only sold five sculptures,” he said, with a hint of sadness.

Then comes his resolve: “I will never close Hewar.”

He even manages to keep his wicked and wry sense of humor. He looked over at one of his three children, his stocky teenage son Ahmed, and jokes that the Americans must be spraying secret growth chemicals over Baghdad.

“I don’t remember us being so big as kids,” he quipped.

“How are you? You infidel pimp!” he shouted from the terrace of the gallery’s second floor to a Christian friend whizzing past on a scooter.

The friend looked up and smiled.

After several weeks roaming in and out of the gallery, the sheep from Anbar have been taken to a friend’s house with a healthy patch of grass.

In 2006, Sabti sold 250 of his works to a U.S art dealer – collages made of hundreds of books charred by a fire in the library of his alma mater, the Arts Academy, the day after Baghdad fell in April 2003.

The works defined his strong feelings about the chaos and lawlessness that swept Baghdad and saw the country’s national museum and library looted and torched to the deep dismay and anger of many in Iraq.

Sabti blames the Americans for the looting, arguing they should have done more to stop it.

Sabti now has found artistic inspiration in something else – the changed landscape of Baghdad since the invasion. “They speak of the conquerors who have laid Iraq to waste over the centuries,” he said of the new project, in which he uses rags, pebbles, match sticks and glue to create street scenes on wood.

“There is little empty space in each one of them, but the rest is filled with destroyed sidewalks, rocks, concrete blocs and blast barriers, barbed wire and bits of the human flesh found on streets at bombing sites,” he said of the works he began three months ago.

“They reflect what the tanks did to our streets, but they are not about the ugliness of Baghdad. Rather, they reflect the city’s melancholy. We used to be very proud of Baghdad.”