Art in the press

Iraq: An Arab artist's painted message of peace Inter Press Service English News Wire

2/28/2003; Sanjay Suri

When you clip the wings of the angel of peace, that too is a demonstration against war. That demonstration comes in a painting by Iraqi artist Hani Mazhar in his latest work 'Between the Elm and the Palm Tree' on exhibition in London.

The painting shows a despondent angel of peace holding a white scroll with a message she may never want to look at again. Her wings are clipped, out of balance. By her side is an uprooted palm tree and around it what might well be a bird of prey. The angel can soar no more, and now seems to have lost the will to try.

The angel is stranded between the elm tree and the palm tree, between two worlds. What is on that scroll? It is blank, it has nothing to say that anyone wants to hear. But then again, maybe we cannot see. Like all art, the painting has resonance that opens it to varying interpretations.

The idea of the angel is a simple idea of today's Iraq, even a predictable image, perhaps, for conveying a message.

But the artist's touch makes sure that symbolism is not reduced to allegory. It is a stark expression that stays with viewers, speaks to them long after you have moved away from it. That makes a painting so different from a placard; it makes demonstration by art so different from a demonstration on the street.

The painting completed in December is on its way to a museum of paintings of angels in Valencia in Spain. But it has caught people's imagination in London more than many others of Mazhar's paintings because it is an arresting image, and because it came when it did. A timely angel. Mazhar lives in London because he could not paint, could not express himself with freedom in the Iraq that was taken over by Saddam Hussein in 1978. That makes the painting also an image of his freedom to express himself, to convey the message he wants to. But the artist is not just a messenger. "There is a message, yes, but I also want the freedom not to convey a message," he tells IPS.

"I used to think I could use my painting as an envelope, and put a card inside it that is my message," he says. "But then I saw that it is enough to show that I feel, that I see. I worked to make it more free, to do something because I want to."

Art is finally an expression by an artist, but it is true enough that "art can give a message," he says. "The visual has one language, and it is a small world." But what can art really do in the political world? "Maybe nothing, but we have to say something," Mazhar says. "We cannot all just wait to be controlled. We cannot see something, and feel something, and not express ourselves the way we know best."

If the message goes home to someone, good. If not, then it is a matter between the artist and the expression - and anyone who cares to see.

This painting has caught the eye perhaps because the angel has failed to deliver that message of peace. Mazhar does not care to whom, really. "Bush and the oil companies, they want to attack Iraq, and they want to do it in our name," he says. But that does not mean he is sympathetic to Saddam Hussein.

"I lost my family, my homeland when Saddam took over," he said. "At that time America, Britain, everyone helped him," he says. "No one listened to us when we said he is a killer." And he knows Saddam also killed art, "except what is in the shadows, and what no one can see." Mazhar knows that other than portraits of Saddam Hussein there would be little he could paint and show had he stayed in Iraq. "I tried to find my freedom again through art."

Mazhar, born in Iraq in 1955, took to painting in early years, and paints anything that comes to mind. Like exploring the use of red and black he saw in Japan, like painting ideas from Sufism. "I do not like to put myself into a corner," he says. Surely an artist would be moved by something other than Bush and Saddam.

And what next?
"I will just paint," he says. "What will go into the painting, what the result will be, it does not matter."