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by Caroline Ewing

above from Untitled, Majid Hashim, 2003

For most of us, the reality of war is unimaginable. Stories about war, however, are a familiar and important aspect of how we narrate our family histories, and thus our own life stories. Your parents fought against the war, or they fought in the war; an uncle died in Vietnam, a grandfather survived World War II. Perhaps what is more important to our national identities, however, are images of war and about war. For better or for worse, since the American Civil War, photography has produced iconic images that have swayed the public's attitude towards or against war. Not only do we understand our recent history of war through photographs; they shape the very way we imagine a war to be.

During the current war in Iraq, images of its effects on soldiers and civilian populations have become highly contested. More than ever in our country's history, media control and censorship on the government's behalf dictate to us not only what we see, but also what we think about the war. When asked what is the largest difference in public reaction towards this war as compared to the Vietnam War, veterans often say our generation lacks the visceral violent imagery that was broadcast on television every night in the 1960s and '70s.

Today, photographs of soldiers torturing prisoners and flag-draped caskets are only seen when they are "leaked" to the media. When the Arab television network al-Jazeera showed images of a Baghdad neighborhood bombed by American forces, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated in an interview with ABC that, "What [al-Jazeera] do[es] is when there's a bomb goes down, they grab some children and some women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children." The U.S. government knows that war imagery can strongly influence the American public's opinion of the war. As a result, it is no surprise that images of violence, bombings, and civilian deaths come few and far between in today's popular media.

sarmed khaziArt, on the other hand, has always existed on the periphery, seemingly out of reach from media conglomerates and political spin, because it falls into the category of an expressive medium and has little basis in "truth." It is during this time of censorship and media control, however that art should be looked to for its ability to convey what is largely missing in our understanding of the Iraq War, the daily experience of Iraqi citizens.

The story began in Baghdad, when an American human rights worker living there heard about the Iraqi Plastic Arts Gallery, a collective of 15 artists living and making art in the middle of a war. With no place to show their work and no money with which to ship it out of the country, the human rights worker sent the collective's work via CD to a friend in Chicago named Charles Trimbach. She asked if he knew of anyone who might be interested in showing the work. The work was shipped and Trimbach exhibited several paintings at Chicago's Hamsa Festival and soon after, at the Peace Museum. Having exhibited the work, Trimbach arranged for it to travel back to Baghdad with his friend, but things did not go as planned. Three members of the human rights organization were kidnapped in Baghdad, and suddenly Trimbach was forced to take over the entire operation, from shipping to communication to wiring money. "It hasn't been dropped in my lap, it was placed in my hands."

At first, Trimbach tried to find a gallery in the city that would be interested in showing the work as a one-time exhibition. In an example of the insularity that plagues the contemporary art world, not a single gallery was interested in exhibiting work related to what may be the most important issue facing this country. "I called forty galleries in one day that I thought might like the work, and not a single one even listened to what I had to say. They just said, 'No, thanks. We're not interested.'" Exasperated with the lack of interest in the work, Trimbach signed a year lease in November for his modest space in the Rogers Park neighborhood.

Trimbach found some support for his project and a wider audience for the work when Chris Johnson, owner of Johnsonese Gallery, volunteered to exhibit some paintings in a show entitled Art Goes On...In Baghdad, which closed in early March. Johnson said of his interest in the exhibition: "I thought it was an important opportunity to show work coming from a war zone. I also immediately respected the artists for continuing to work in such an impossible environment."

The mission of the Rogers Park based Iraqi Art Gallery, Trimbach says, is to "foster cultural exchange between cultures in conflict" by exhibiting artwork that most Americans would never even know existed. The gallery has received positive attention, especially through the Arab American Action Network, an interview on WTTW, and an article in the Chicago Tribune.

However, it has also received negative attention. "One day, as I was closing the gallery for the day, I heard two men outside the window, and one of them said, 'Iraqi art?' And then one of them mentioned a firebomb. I went outside and asked them if they would like to come inside to see what was really going on here."

Trimbach claims no political motive in exhibiting the work, but does feel that he is fulfilling a need for cross-cultural exchange, saying, "It started out as a necessity, and now it's a labor of love." However neutral one would like to be, the politics of war are inherent to the project. For instance, before he could even consider selling the paintings or paying the artists, Trimbach had to check the names of all his artists against the State Department's list of "Identified Terrorists and Groups." Last year, one of the artists in the collective, Sarmed Khazi, was killed by a car bomb, and another artist was nearly killed on his way to pick up the money that Trimbach had wired after selling some paintings.

mass graves The works by Iraqi artists are clearly influenced by European Modernist painting. However, titles such as Mass Graves (Mohammed Mssayer) and Lost in Baghdad (Muhammad Al-Kasim), are matched by an equally terse visual vocabulary. Opaque pigments abound; any figuration at all is mostly obscured by a curtain-like fog of paint that reeks of suffocation and hardship. However, works such as Coffee Shop on the River of Baghdad (Amal) reference either pre-war Baghdad or the persistence of daily life in a war-zone; markets continue operating, people walk on the street. These paintings are overshadowed in number by a majority of skilled painters who depict limited, expressionist work that speaks for itself.

Americans are largely cut off from understanding the lives of average people trying to survive in countries such as Iraq. The unfortunate result of this is that national goals become transferred onto personal goals, and stereotypes and bias multiply. Trimbach sees art as useful in "how cross-cultural understanding can occur to help Americans understand Iraqis, and vice-versa, so that it is understood by Iraqis that America is not a monolithic entity."

Trimbach's project has also gaining the attention of the Arab American Action Network, who are working with Trimbach to coordinate the Chicago Arabesque Festival this summer. It will run from June 27-30 in Daley Plaza and will hopefully foster a cross-cultural understanding that is so crucial during a war that many see as "America vs. Islam." Fighting a war halfway across the world is, unfortunately, not new to the American public. What is new is the control and censorship our government exerts over what we see and know about the "war on terror." There is undoubtedly a kind of truth in the images created by these Iraqi artists, which provides a perspective that is lacking in much of our daily media today.

On view now at Iraqi Art Gallery , through April 8, Rising From the Ashes

all images courtesy of Iraqi Art Gallery

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