At least we've learnt one thing from watching the war round the clock these past few weeks: Iraq is an ancient land, littered with artworks of great antiquity. But how much do we know about modern Iraqi art? The British Museum boasts the greatest collection of Mesopotamian art outside Iraq, but for a more up-to-date view, the Aya Gallery's remarkable collection comprises a potted history of 20th-century Iraqi art, which epitomises that country's complex relationship with the west.
Modern Iraqi art dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Iraqi officers in the Ottoman army were inspired by European painting in Istanbul. Returning home after the First World War, they started painting local landscapes in the French style, and under the British-backed King Faisal I, young Iraqi artists were sent to study in Paris, Rome, Berlin and London. During the Second World War, Polish soldiers brought a more expressionistic style to Baghdad, and in 1950, a group called The Pioneers was formed, dedicated to painting the world around them.
After the revolution of 1958, Iraq's influences became even broader, as artists won scholarships to study in the United States, the USSR and China, as well as Europe. The new regime opened an Academy of Fine Arts and a National Museum of Modern Art. But the Iran and Kuwait wars prompted many Iraqi artists to move abroad. For those who stayed, isolated and impoverished by sanctions, producing any art at all was a great achievement. And although the work on show at Aya reflects that hardship, it is also a testament to the invincibility of Iraq's creative spirit.
Aya is the inspiration of the Iraqi ceramicist Maysaloun Faraj. Designed by her husband, the Iraqi architect Ali Mousawi, it is a sunlit outpost of the Middle East in the middle of Fulham High Street. In the front room, there is a mesmeric new show by Hamid al-Attar, an award-winning Iraqi artist who has lived in Britain for the past 30 years. His huddled figures stare out at you with hollow eyes - silent victims of oppression, haunted portraits of the living dead.
The back room houses a small but astonishingly varied cross-section of Iraqi art, from inside the country and all around the world. Iraq's travails have scattered its artists, but their travels have diversified its art. There are works here from as far away as Norway. From traditional figuration to abstract expressionism, virtually every genre is represented, but with an unfamiliar twist. "Although each artist has his unique style," says Faraj, "there is a certain thread that links it."
Faraj opened Aya in November 2002, but her elegant gallery is just one part of an ongoing project called Strokes of Genius. The title of a book and a touring exhibition, it is also an extensive archive of information on Iraqi artists and their work. She began this huge project in 1995, in response to the dispersal of Iraqi art around the world. "Through art you connect to that culture," says Faraj. John Pilger described the book as "a timely reminder of the culture and humanity of the Iraqi people". It is even more timely today.
"Strokes of Genius" travelled to Bath and Exeter, and then to Iowa in 2002, and Chicago earlier this year. Faraj went to Chicago for the opening. "It was heart-warming and very emotional, and people were really thrilled with the show," she says. "We were sharing the positive and creative and beautiful side of Iraq." One day, she hopes to take Strokes of Genius back to the country that created it. In the meantime, she is doing her best to maintain Iraq's international heritage.
Whatever you think about the war, one thing is certain: we ought to know far more about this country, and Faraj's revelatory gallery is a good place to start. "It's my small contribution as an individual, as an artist, as an Iraqi, to open people's eyes where I can," she says. "It's a small effort, but raindrops cause rivers to overflow."