Iraq’s missing modern art

Baghdad’s art galleries are struggling to restore their priceless collections.

There was an intriguing piece in the New York Times this week on the sorry state of Baghdad's National Museum of Modern Art. Despite once housing some of the Arab world's most important works, the museum has been left to atrophy since the fall of Saddam. Its paintings, looted during the collapse of the Ba'ath regime in 2003, are now trading on the black market.

According to recent estimates, about 1,700 of the 7,000 works removed from the museum have been reclaimed. Still missing are paintings by the influential Iraqi artists Madiha Omar and Saud al-Attar, as well as a collection of valuable European works, among them paintings by Pablo Picasso.

For some years now, a coterie of artists and curators has been trying to buy back looted pieces, pressing both the Coalition Provisional Authority and US authorities for help in recovering lost art. But the official position of the occupying powers has been to insist on the voluntary return of goods. Only recently did the new Iraqi government authorise the repossession by force of works removed from the Museum of Modern Art.

In contrast, Iraq's National Museum, which stores ancient treasures from the Sumerian and Babylonian eras, has received heavy investment, including a $14m grant announced in autumn 2008 by Laura Bush. Though still waiting for a heating and cooling system, the national museum was deemed ready for a high-profile reopening ceremony last February, hosted by Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.

So why is the Iraqi administration focusing its resources in this way? Its bias against modern art almost certainly stems from political motives. Most prominent Iraqi artists of the past 20 years have enjoyed the patronage of figures tied to Saddam Hussein's regime -- indeed, the modern art museum was formerly known as the Saddam Centre for the Arts -- and there are some fears that returning works will be vandalised.

In addition, the Islamic political parties that have emerged in the postwar vacuum -- al-Maliki's Dawa Party among them -- have shown scant regard for modern art, in part for fear that these works could be viewed as impious. In a nation riven by so many religious and political divisions, the authorities have had to look to ancient history, rather than modern culture, for symbols of national unity.

So, for the time being, Salam Atta Sabri, director of the Museum of Modern Art, is exhibiting what he can. Of the five storeys that the museum once occupied, three galleries are now open to the public. The rest has become a warren of offices and cubicles belonging to the ministry of culture.

"Hopefully someone is going to help us from international museums [sic]," Sabri told a reporter from the New York Times, "to get the grant for restoration first, and [then] for a better place."

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue