Elegy for a Fertile Culture

Speakers Dena Al-Adeeb, left, and Hadani Ditmars

Matt Shoor, AIA

Event: Iraqi Culture Pre- and Post-Invasion: From Secular to Sectarian
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.15.12
Speakers: Hadani Ditmars, author, journalist, and photographer; Dena Al-Adeeb, artist, scholar, and activist
Introduced by: Rick Bell, FAIA, AIANY Executive Director
Organizers: The Center for Architecture
Benefactor: A. Estéban & Company
Lead Sponsor: Buro Happold
Sponsors: Eytan Kaufman Design and Development; FXFOWLE
Supporters: Arup; Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Dewan Architects & Engineers; GAD; HDR; Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; NAGA Architects; Ramla Benaissa Architects; RBSD Architects; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; World Monuments Fund; Zardman

“It has never been easy for artists in Iraq…But now, this is the worst it’s ever been.” This plaintive declaration, originally spoken by poet Saadi Youssef and published by author Hadani Ditmars in the March 2008 issue of The Walrus, encapsulates the current state of the arts in contemporary Iraq. Civil society is in decline, factionalism is rife, and artists are literally fleeing for their lives.

The Center for Architecture hosted Ditmars and Dena Al-Adeeb, an Iraqi artist living in exile in the United States, in a frank discussion that touched upon the struggle for artistic expression in an increasingly suppressive and sectarian society. Ditmars, author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, presented compelling evidence of the rapid and debilitating degradation of Iraqi culture in the post-invasion era, putting present-day conditions in the context of the rich artistic history of Iraq in the latter half of the 20th century.

In the late 1950s, petrodollars contributed to the rapid expansion of the nation’s infrastructure. Foreign architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Arthur Erickson, were commissioned to design a variety of civic, sports, religious, and cultural facilities. Their involvement contributed to what Ditmars referred to as a “Bauhaus in Baghdad,” a flourish of Iraqi modern architecture and design.

Ditmars asserted that, following Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, and continuing through years of war and economic sanctions, artists were buoyed by a certain siege mentality. The enemies of art were known (Baathists, Hussein and his cronies), and topics that may have incurred their ire could be avoided or shrouded in double entrendre and satire.

Given the constantly shifting political environment in contemporary Iraq, however, Ditmars and Al-Adeeb suggested that today’s artists are terrified that their work has the potential to offend any party, at any time. Unlike during Saddam’s reign, Iraqis no longer know who is watching them. Moreover, unanticipated sectarian reprisals in response to “offensive” art can be swift and vicious.

As a result, most cultural activity has ceased entirely. The Iraqi National Orchestra has been silenced. The vibrant theater scene in Baghdad has been reduced to a shadow of its former glory. Visual artists are not exhibiting artwork, if they are even producing it at all. In order to maintain the freedom to create, many artists have been forced into exile. They join 6 million of their fellow countrymen in a diaspora that extends from the Middle East to North America and beyond.

Al-Adeeb indicated that the role of the Iraqi artist in exile has evolved into documentarian and preservationist. Artists want to record the ascendance and decline of their rich and varied society. In an elegiac sentiment, she implied that if Iraqi culture is to vanish in its homeland, Iraqi artists want to be the ones to write its history.

Matt Shoor, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is an architect, writer, and educator currently employed by Macrae-Gibson Architects. He is a frequent contributor to e-Oculus, and recently received his architectural license. Matt can be reached at mshoor@gmail.com.