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Issue 172

Calling It Quits

What is the future of arts education in Baghdad?

BY Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Opinion | 01 JUN 15

Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts

In April this year, the writer and curator Rijin Sahakian announced that she was winding down the activities of Sada, the arts organization she launched five years ago. Sada – meaning ‘echo’ in Arabic –was set up to address the damage done to Iraq’s contemporary-art infrastructure by decades of war, dictatorship and sanctions. Its educational initiatives have now been phased out and the mentoring programmes and production grants are gone. The collective studio that Sahakian was running, very quietly, in a space with no signage near the Karrada district in Baghdad, closed just over a year ago. Sada’s last act as a functioning entity was to support three young artists – Sajjad Abbas, Laith K. Daer and Ali Eyal, aged 22, 20 and 21 respectively – who had been making the most use of that space in increasingly dire circumstances.

Abbas, Daer and Eyal are all from Sadr City and grew up in the same neighbourhood before studying at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts, a high school with a long and consequential history. Almost all of Iraq’s major modern artists, from Dia Azzawi and Shakir Hassan al-Said to Jawad Salim, were involved as founders, teachers or alumni. Today, the school still functions, albeit barely, as a feeder for the College of Art at Baghdad University, another legendary institution whose campus was designed, in 1957, by a team of architects led by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. ‘They are all super committed and very prolific,’ Sahakian tells me of the students receiving the last of Sada’s grants. Their interest in art is intense, she adds, ‘and they aren’t afraid of anything’. She says she has no doubt that they will continue to work, for as long as they can. It is a sad, painful measure of how bad things in Iraq have become that a project like Sada, which was meant to repair and bolster an art scene in its own context, so quickly reached a point where the only way to proceed was to call it quits.

In 2011, a year after it was launched, Sada came into its own with a fistful of international foundations eager to support it, a benefit auction at Christie’s in Dubai, a board of advisors composed of artists and poets, and an ambitious approach to teaching through technology that allowed for meaningful connections among practitioners and access to much-needed resources, including critical texts on contemporary art in Arabic. But then Bassim al-Shakir, a painter and student of Sada’s programmes, was chased, taunted and severely beaten in Baghdad two years ago. Sahakian helped get him out of the country and into an artists’ residency programme in the us. It was the first of several signs that the situation was changing.

Sada had always focused on the artists who stayed rather than those, far more numerous, who went into exile and are scattered all over the world. It was precisely such atomization that the organization hoped to mend. Sahakian, whose parents are Armenian and Assyrian, was born in Baghdad and raised in California. She returned often, staying with family and lived in a neighbourhood she’d always known. Now, it is too dangerous for her to do so. She calls the latest destruction of cultural sites in Iraq ‘an insane form of losing your home in a fire. You’re losing not only ancient relics but the places where your ancestors prayed and picnicked. You’re losing everything that made you who you are.’ Without being in Baghdad, she can’t earn the trust of the students – something that, given all the city has seen, can only happen face-to-face, day-to-day.

In his 2002 essay ‘The Loneliness of the Project’, Boris Groys observes that all projects, whether they succeed or fail, are visions of the future. Their authors experience seclusion and self-isolation because they are already living in those visions of the future, in a parallel time, apart from ‘the general flow of world events’, which they are in any case trying to alter. As a project, Sada may have only achieved that suspended state of being for a short while. But what it imagined for the future, and how it connected to the past, remain as traces of what Sada has been, and what contemporary art in Iraq could still be.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York, USA.