German Curator’s Abduction in Baghdad Leaves Iraqi Artists in Shock
The abduction last week of Hella Mewis, a German activist and art curator, on a busy street in the heart of Baghdad shocked friends in the arts community and heightened the recently renewed fears of a new campaign of violence against intellectuals in Iraq.
According to news reports, unknown gunmen abducted Mewis at about 8 p.m. on Monday, July 20, as she rode her bicycle back to an arts center on Abu Nawas Street, where she worked. Witnesses said the gunmen forced Mewis into one of their two vehicles and drove away. She was freed on Friday morning by the Iraqi military, but many questions remain about her abduction.
Mewis has been involved in cultural projects in Baghdad for a decade and has lived there since 2012.
Her abduction followed attacks on other prominent cultural actors in the past year and a half that have left many Iraqis and foreign nationals afraid for the future. Alaa Mashzoub, a popular Iraqi novelist, was shot to death in front of his home in Karbala, a Shiite holy city about 60 miles south of Baghdad, in February 2019. Husham al-Hashimi, a prominent expert on Jihadi groups, was killed in Baghdad earlier this month. (See a related article, “Iraqi Researcher’s Assassination Stirs Fears of Renewed Violence Against Academics.”)
Mewis frequently visited Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a popular center of the protests attended and organized by unemployed youth and students in Baghdad and across southern Iraq, and she helped document art activities there. (See a related article, “Protest Art Turns a Concrete Tunnel into a Vibrant Gallery.”)
Friends and Colleagues Are Shocked
Besides being the head of the culture department of Goethe Institut Irak, in Baghdad, Mewis also works for TARKIB Baghdad Contemporary Arts Institute, which organizes festivals every year to support young artists in Baghdad.
Hussain Muttar, an architectural experimental artist at TARKIB who described Mewis as his teacher, helper and friend, said he had met her in front of the arts center on Monday afternoon hours before her abduction.
“She was on her bike back from Tahrir Square,” said Muttar, who is the author of A Thousand Stories and a Story, a dramatic reading walk. “That was our first meeting in weeks due to the Covid-19 lockdown. In the evening, I was shocked to hear the news of her kidnapping.”
Angela Boskovitch, an Italian cultural organizer working in Iraq for nearly a decade, knew Mewis well.
“Two vehicles followed her. The nearby security checkpoint apparently did nothing to stop them. We are not sure who is behind that, yet the threat to the field of culture is huge and continuous. Many artists have been kidnapped.”Angela Boskovitch
an Italian cultural organizer working in Iraq for nearly a decade
“Hella is an absolute professional in the field of culture, highly skilled in building projects of cooperation between institutions in Europe and the Middle East, primarily Egypt and Iraq,” Boskovitch said. “Her real interest is in performance art, especially theater. Iraq has a theater tradition that has suffered harshly since 2003.”
Boskovitch admired Mewis’s work with TARKIB, which she sees as an artist collective bringing art to the community and working with art as a medium itself, welcoming not only artists but anyone using art to gain self understanding.
“She is German, she loves bicycles,” Boskovitch said of Mewis. “Two vehicles followed her. The nearby security checkpoint apparently did nothing to stop them. We are not sure who is behind that, yet the threat to the field of culture is huge and continuous. Many artists have been kidnapped.”
In October 2013, Mewis was part of the effort behind Baghdad’s first International Theater Festival.
“It was a beautiful busy festival that was followed by a smaller theater festival called Stamba at Muntada al-Masrah at Abu Nawas in Baghdad, Hella’s favorite place,” added Boskovitch, who attended both festivals. “Many European organizers and I helped Hella in that project. It was attended by many artists and university students to explore theater from Iraq, Egypt, Germany and France.”
‘A Baghdadi Woman’
Muttar, who worked with Mewis on many exhibitions and publications, cannot believe what had happened.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
“She describes herself as a Baghdadi woman,” he said. “She loves the city and worked so much for it. Baghdadis love Hella, and her presence in any place used to bring joy and smiles to faces. She helped young artists find their passion, kids to learn music and team thinking, and random people on the streets. Her acts were those only a good Iraqi citizen who loves this country would do.”
Shirouk al-Abayachi, a former member of Parliament from the Civil Democratic Alliance, said that Mewis’s abduction “brought back to our minds all the kidnappings and assassinations we experienced since 2004 and that we had hoped had ended.” Speaking in an interview on Al-Sharqiya TV Channel, she added: “Especially when this affects our guests who pose no threat whatsoever and women like Mewis, who considers herself a Baghdadi. She used to say she is living among her own people and does not feel afraid or threatened. For eight years, she really lived here safely and was loved by us.”
“What happened is a heavy blow to the freedom of expression. Since al-Hashimi’s murder, we felt a new bad era has begun.”Ameen Mukdad
a violinist and member of TARKIB
‘A Source of Hope’
Ameen Mukdad, a violinist and member of TARKIB, seemed desperate.
“We are close friends. What happened is a heavy blow to the freedom of expression,” he said. “Since al-Hashimi’s murder, we felt a new bad era has begun.”
For Mukdad, Mewis “was and still is a source of hope.”
After coming to Baghdad from Mosul in 2017—he was stuck in Mosul under ISIS—he said, “with all the suffering I experienced, everything called me to emigrate. Among the things that urged me to stay was the work and space Hella provided and supported. We became close friends and partners in many projects.”
Boskovitch thinks young Iraqi artists suffer because of their limited abilities to express themselves in a climate of threat and fear.
She mentioned the case of Karar Nushi, an aspiring theater student. “He was abducted from the steps of the National Theater in Baghdad,” she said. “It is like seeing an artist being abducted in front of La Scala in Milan. It is impossible. He was killed and thrown on the street.”
Mewis provided young Iraqi artists a space to study art, exhibit and express themselves, Boskovitch said. “That was Hella’s work and passion,” she said. “She loves to work with young Iraqis who aspire to use art to improve their conditions, society, and build another country. We know how culture is crucial to countries experiencing trauma and war.”
A Blow to European-Iraqi Cooperation
Officials with the German institute and others declined to comment on Mewis’s abduction. But an alliance of 55 Iraqi civil-society groups, journalists, lawyers and artists held a news conference in Baghdad last Tuesday to condemn the kidnapping and demand Mewis’s release.
Boskovitch is concerned the incident will further undermine foreign efforts to support Iraq’s culture.
People, she said, “are already afraid to work in Iraq and do not see culture a priority. The halt of this support to Iraq will be indescribable, for there is already too little to begin with.”