National healing

Art - William Cook examines the role of artists in the cultural reconstruction of Iraq

It is 21 years since Rashad Selim left Iraq, but last year he returned, to fly painted kites above the debris, "to reoccupy the sky with our dreams [and] regain the future with our imagination". His artistic odyssey gave him a unique view of Iraqi art in the aftermath of war, but you don't need to travel to Baghdad to experience his remarkable artworks. Now back in Britain, where's he's been based for the past three years, he's one of a broad range of Iraqi artists exhibiting in "Expressions of Hope", an eclectic and enlightening group show at London's Aya Gallery. "Iraq is a traumatised country," says Rashad. But in these pictures there's optimism, too.

These exuberant, sombre paintings refute our stereotype of Middle Eastern art as intrinsically insular and remote. European influences such as Picasso and Chagall jostle with shapes and colours entirely alien to the western eye. Painted as far afield as Europe and the United States, they evoke the suffering that Iraq has endured - and the creativity that has survived. Internal turmoil has scattered the country's artists around the globe.

Rashad Selim was born in 1957 in Khartoum, where his father was a diplomat. He lived in Iraq throughout his teens, and left in 1982, three years after Saddam Hussein came to power. A significant artist in his own right, he is also the youngest member of one of Iraq's most important artistic dynasties - one of half a dozen artists from the same prolific family. Most renowned is his uncle, Jewad Selim, a pioneer of modern art in Iraq, incorporating European styles into a distinctive Iraqi aesthetic. Jewad's Monument of Freedom, a massive bronze relief depicting Iraq's 1958 revolution, is still standing in Baghdad.

Jewad died of a heart attack in 1961, when he was only 41, four years after Rashad was born, but the nephew straddles the stylistic gulf between east and west with the same ease as his celebrated uncle. Now in his mid-forties, he's taught extensively in North Africa and exhibited widely in Europe and America. As a young man, he joined Thor Heyerdahl's Tigris expedition, helping the Norwegian explorer to build and crew a modern replica of a traditional Sumerian reed boat, to sail the ancient trade routes between Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and the Red Sea - a fitting metaphor for the internationalism of Iraqi culture.

Such a boat features in one of the most striking images in this exhibition, by the US-based Iraqi artist Leila Kubba. The Path Ahead depicts two rowers, one facing confidently forward - the other looking hesitantly back the way they've come. It's a potent symbol for the uncertain situation of her homeland. "There are many problems as well as much to hope for in Baghdad," says Rashad. Kubba's picture captures that sense of a country on the cusp, temporarily suspended between past and future.

Remarkably, despite both Saddam's rule and sanctions, the number of private galleries in Baghdad grew during the 1990s, partly fed by patronage from the international aid community. But the war has had a catastrophic effect on these galleries. "The art scene in Baghdad is, at the moment, non-existent," says Rashad. "There are functioning galleries but they are now in a point of limbo."

The looting of Iraq's archaeological museums was well publicised by the western press, but the plundering of its art galleries went relatively unreported. "Those were all ransacked," says Rashad. "People don't realise that." Like our imperial ancestors, we still find it easier to venerate Iraq's distant past than to celebrate its vital present. "It is part of the inherent racism," says Rashad. He may be right, but it is also about our lack of proper understanding and information.

Since the war, events such as the bombing of the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad have driven away many of the best clients for Iraqi art - it is mainly westerners who can afford to buy art in these troubled times. And for those who have stayed behind, safety remains an issue. For his kite-flying display, Rashad was joined by local artists and children - but, for security reasons, he wasn't able to advertise their performance in advance.

Nevertheless, Rashad found signs of a renaissance in Baghdad. He attended the first committee meeting of the reconvened Iraqi Artists' Society, held an inaugural workshop in their reopened premises, and discovered a private gallery called Hiwaar that is already a lively community space for the re-emerging Baghdad art scene. Here, he sensed the euphoria of people living through an era of great change, even amid the continuing challenge of basic survival. "It was amazing how much was done with very little money."

And, despite its pressing practical problems, Rashad believes that art is integral to the cultural reconstruction of Iraq, re-establishing the country's historic role as a bridge, rather than a barrier, between east and west. "Iraq has always been at the crossroads of civilisation," says Rashad. "It is where all the civilisations cross. That's why it's important."

Art is an international language that can speak clearly between divided nations. "It is absolutely essential that Iraqi art and world art - European art, British art, American art - come together. The issues are now the same. I see the future of art as a joining together."And that's why, in the end, Rashad would love to see foreign artists coming to Iraq and vice versa. As he says, "What we're looking for is an open dialogue with the world."

"Expressions of Hope" is at the Aya Gallery, Fulham High Street, London SW6 (020 7371 5050) until 3 February. For more information visit www.ayagallery.co.uk