Protest Art Turns a Concrete Tunnel into a Vibrant Gallery

/ 06 Mar 2020

Protest Art Turns a Concrete Tunnel into a Vibrant Gallery

Amid the anti-government protests that have gripped Baghdad since October, dozens of young artists have taken to the streets with their weapons of choice: spray paints and paintbrushes. Full of anger and hope, they have turned a long-neglected tunnel that passes under the city’s Tahrir Square into a colorful revolutionary art gallery with murals and statements painted on its walls.

Caesar al-Wardi, a 28-year-old lawyer and photographer, has been there since the start. On October 1, amid live ammunition and tear gas used against the protesters, al-Wardi defied Iraq’s riot police with art, taking a small canvas and writing the word “freedom” on it in red.

“I embodied all my feelings and poured my whole soul into that graffiti,” he said.

Most of the murals in Baghdad’s Al-Saadoun Tunnel refer to Iraqi unity. They condemn sectarianism and call for national sovereignty and an end to foreign intervention. They hail the heroism of tuk-tuk drivers who help get injured protesters to medical stations. They also lament the silence of the world against a violent crackdown on protests, which has killed 600 people so far, according to Amnesty International. (See a related article, “Inside Iraq’s Protests: Students Are Defiant in Their Demands.”)

“I felt the need for a real graffiti revolution in Baghdad,” said al-Wardi. “I got acquainted with many painters and started organizing them and raising funds to buy the paints they needed. I found myself [acting as] a mentor,” he added, smiling. “I focused on street art as a powerful means to peacefully convey our demands.”

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From Baghdad to Beirut to Cairo, street art—particularly graffiti—has become one of the main tools of protesters and artists for conveying political messages, concerns and demands.

“I felt the need for a real graffiti revolution in Baghdad.”

Caesar al-Wardi   A 28-year-old lawyer and photographer

During the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Egypt, artists covered large expanses of walls around Cairo’s Tahrir Square with memorials to the victims of the military crackdown and texts that made up the protesters’ cheers. Graffiti became a mechanism through which to consider an evolving national identity.

That dynamic is now playing out in Baghdad, as protest art transforms the walls of Al-Saadoun Tunnel and other concrete surfaces.

Emphasizing their own national identity, some of the Iraqi artists have used ancient Mesopotamian figures in their murals, blending images of Assyrian winged bulls from the seventh century B.C. with contemporary tuk-tuks, or depicting  the Sumerian princess Puabi (2,600 B.C.) wearing a gasmask like those used by protesters to withstand the fumes from tear gas grenades hurled at them by security forces.

Osama Art, a 24-year old Baghdadi graffiti artist, employs symbols from cuneiform, the writing system invented by the ancient Sumerians, to spell out the Arabic words for peace and love.

“It took me seven hours nonstop to write ‘peace’ in cuneiform” in a gigantic work that stretches nearly 150 feet across the roof of a garage, said Osama. His work might be the world’s largest peace image in Arabo-cuneiform.

A young calligrapher, Sajad Mustafa, has repeatedly traveled from Basra to Baghdad, a distance of more than 300 miles, to take part in this spontaneous street art festival. Mustafa used Sunbuli calligraphy, a form developed in Istanbul in 1914, to make a piece that inscribes the names of 50 martyrs of the protests. “My work was to immortalize those who had sacrificed their lives for us,” he said.

“It took me seven hours nonstop to write ‘peace’ in cuneiform” in a work that stretches across the roof of a garage.

Osama Art   A 24-year old Baghdadi graffiti artist

The demonstrations in Baghdad—the largest since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003—have also been notable for an unprecedented level of participation by female protesters. On February 13, hundreds of Iraqi women took to the streets, some clad in pink or purple, to challenge the controversial cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s call for separating men and women in the rallies.

Moreover, many murals hail women’s power and contributions, calling for equality and echoing famous images from the past like Rosie the Riveter.

“I got inspired by J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It’ poster,” said al-Wardi, the Baghdad lawyer and photographer. “I helped the painter to draw it and add a national touch by painting the Iraqi flag on our Rosie the Riveter’s cheek.”

Theater on the Square 

It’s not just the visual arts that have been an outlet for political expression.

Baghdad’s Tahrir Square has suddenly become the favorite stage of Kuhel Khalid, a director who joined with colleagues to establish a group called Tahrir Theater. The project engages with and educates people about social issues through short plays that the team develops and presents on the same evening or the following day.

Khalid recently returned from the United Kingdom, where he earned a master’s degree and set up a company called “Red Zone Theatre,” an ironic reference to the dangers faced by most Baghdadis living outside the small fortified enclave known as the Green Zone.

“I can make art everywhere,” said Khalid. “In the U.K., you can build your name, while in Iraq, you will build your name and a society, for Iraqis do need theater.”

Khalid came back to Baghdad to work with Iraqi youth and children. “There are many issues to talk about: sex, religion, politics, etcetera,” he said. “Even if they disagree with my opinions, it is quite important to talk and let them think about issues like women’s rights, gay rights and even animals’ rights.”

Well-known professionals have joined young actors and even demonstrators in the Tahrir Square productions, which have tackled topics like racism, sectarianism and accusations of foreign influence in Iraqi government.

“I can make art everywhere.”

Kuhel Khalid   A director who joined with colleagues to establish Tahrir Theater

Khalid points out that art is just one of the activities that is helping sustain the protests.

“There are about 500 tents in Tahrir,” he said. “They offer music, cinema, theater, tattoos and handicrafts. Everything there is for free. Within hours, all the sectarian, ethnic and societal differences melted away. Free food, art, barber shops and laundry services were used to help people stay and increase the protests’ momentum.”

Audiences’ reactions to his group’s stagings have been effusive: “They cheerfully celebrated our plays. I felt then how real theater has the sacred ability to engage people. After each performance, people were chanting for Iraq and asking to take selfies with the amateur actors as if they were Hollywood stars.”

Music in the Streets 

Musical performances also punctuate the protest zone and have reinvigorated Baghdad’s Rasheed Street, which once thrived with cinemas, theaters, cafes and artisans’ shops.

Al-Wardi has played a role in that by launching Al-Hayat Musical Platform (Life’s Musical Platform) as an impromptu performance space on the front steps of a once elegant house. “I liked the unique old place,” he said. “I called it Hayat Platform, for music is life.”

For three weeks, professional and amateur musicians came to the steps to play for the people. Ameen Mukdad, a violinist from Mosul, performed “Bella Ciao,” a famous Italian protest song, there.  Another group of Mosuli singers produced an Iraqi version with the lyrics “BelayyaChara,” meaning “There is no remedy.”

Mukdad also performed Iraqi folk ballads and songs by iconic singers like Fairuz and Seta Hagopian. “People surrounded me with love, embracing music,” he said. “This is proof of how peaceful these protests are. I belong to this society that glorifies music. This revolution is the fruit of many years of awareness built after a civil war and the war against the Islamic State.”

Nibras Hashim, an artist and professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, thinks that the protests created this spirit of art and innovation as the youth looked for something to represent them.

“It is the most important message sent to the world about Iraqi youths’ culture and awareness,” she said. “All their works are of artistic value and contain a sincere message.”

However, many artists are worried that their artwork will result in their arrest or physical harm.

“It is a new experience for me, to check the taxi’s wing mirror to see if someone is following me,” said Khalid, the theater director. “Anyone you know might be kidnapped because of a word. My friends and I agreed to keep going if something bad happened to one of us. Thinking about being kidnapped is scarier than death itself.”

Al-Wardi remains optimistic: “We have gained a daring strong generation that cannot be silenced and able to face the authorities’ brutality,” he said, “We will see the fruits over the few coming years. The future will be quite different.”




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