> Baghdad In No Particular Order

The Art Market


Between the first and second Gulf War Baghdad developed the largest art market in the Arab World.

There are neither numbers nor studies to confirm this. But numbers are as relative as impressions, as relative as color. What one IS impressed by in Baghdad are the sheer number of galleries and artist studios (not to mention museums).

It is a buyers market, dictated primarily by the orientalist sensibilities of humanitarian workers (mostly European, but also American and Asian) who, between meetings and food distribution runs, wander through the open markets and galleries to buy the art of a crippled country.

There are no local collectors, save the few within the upper echelons of government and culture. The market is essentially sustained by the influx of foreign capital brought by the various Non-Governmental Organizations and humanitarian groups.

The collectors (and in turn the gallerists) have a taste for the authentic. This is a hard sensibility to quantify. What does an authentic painting look like? It is the illusion of authenticity, in creating forms and inventing metaphors that articulate not only the proud history of the Iraqi people, but also the suffering endured by those same people--artists and non-artists alike--that drives the market.

This double agenda of history and authenticity produces a spectrum of works that is unimaginable in an art market not living under perpetual siege. The visual language the artists vary according to their fidelity to the twin poles of history and authenticity.

"Khubz" (bread in Arabic) paintings exists at one end of the spectrum. They make the most "bread" for artist and galleries alike because they fully cater to the western imaginary of Arab life. Nostalgic and cynical, they portray an idyllic bricolage of turbans, palm trees, and camels.

Surprisingly, most of the mainstream gallery walls are not devoted to khubz paintings (which are usually on the second floor or in the back office space of the showroom). Instead, contemporary Iraqi paintings dominate the wall space.

Contemporary Iraqi artists have developed a Co-modern aesthetic. Rather than follow both trajectories of Modernism proper (the pursuit of forms that articulate the contradictions of modern life and the bridging of these forms with technology coterminous with the bringing about of these contradictions), Iraqis combine the pursuit of forms that express the tragic dimension of modern Iraqi life (which means the Iran Iraqi War, The first Gulf War, The UN/US sanctions, and now the second Gulf War) and replace the fetish of technology with history. The result is a kind of "traditional" modernism which fuses the language of modern painting -- its concerns with surface and the play of composition that questions both the depth of the painting space and what exists outside this space -- with the ecology of Iraqi historical signifiers.

  • I bought three paintings: two portraits and one landscape. Paintings sell for as little as two USD to fifty USD. Sculptures go for more.

  • It is also equally clear that it is the Iraqi people's regard of their own history that sustains the art market as much as the influx of foreign capital. Art as radical rememberance. In the west, it is the pursuit of the new (or rather the longing of the new) that sustains the drive towards the novel (which provides the raison de'tre of the market in New York, Los Angeles, London, et. al. It is different in Iraq, where the dominant philosophy of art is more in line with Walter Benjamin's notion of history.

  • Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Red Grooms, Philip Guston, Botero, Jackson Pollack, Ellsworth Kelly, Mike Kelly, Giacometti, Malevich, Peter Max (unfortunately).