Artists resist pressure to be more sectarian

It's art ornamenting life: murals of soothing landscapes and historical heroes covering the blast walls that are now as much a part of Baghdad's cityscape as date palms and desert dust.

The idea took off last year when Iraqi aid groups sought to provide work for young artists – and offer a bit of hope and a splash of color to a city whose signature hue is oatmeal brown.

But fully rising above Iraq's sectarian suspicions has proved a challenge.

Many members in the founding group of artists are putting down their brushes to protest requests from neighborhood councils to depict politically charged sectarian themes, such as Sunni shrines in Sunni districts or Shiite saints in Shiite areas.

“We'd rather refuse the work than do that,” said Ali Saleem Badran, one of the original crew of muralists in the Jamaat al-Jidaar, or the Wall Group. “That is not what this work is supposed to say.”

The mural project began in early 2007 when Iraqi civic groups approached aspiring and student artists, including Badran who was then in his last year of art school.

Hundreds of concrete slabs – each about 12-by-6-feet and designed to shield against car bombs and other threats – were gradually turned into an open-air art gallery meant to boost spirits and kindle optimism.

But rumbles started a few months ago, Badran said, when the program was transferred from loose government oversight to neighborhood councils that began suggesting sectarian images.

Many of the original artists have refused to take part. Local dabblers have often taken up the slack with less refined – but still potent – references to either Sunni or Shiite roots.

City officials have tried to clamp down on overt sectarian symbols, but watching over the miles of blast walls borders is impossible. The best they can do is appeal for reconciliation.

“This is the year of reconstruction. This is the year of building,” said Tahseen al-Sheikhly, civilian spokesman for Baghdad security operations.

For now, most paintings on blast walls are apolitical, portraying themes on the region's past as Mesopotamia, the Sumarian and Assyrian cultures, Baghdad's place as an intellectual heart of the medieval Islamic world.

Others show the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and ziggurats, the terraced temple towers that once dotted the Mesopotamian valley.

Remarkably, none of the murals appears to have suffered significant vandalism or the type of graffiti seen on naked blast walls, such as scrawled slogans and advertisements for businesses hidden behind the concrete barriers.

One barber tried to lure customers with a ditty that rhymes in Arabic: “Jump and you will find me.”

The hands-off aura around the murals could be fear of the Iraqi security patrols or America's aerial surveillance. Badran likes to think it's respect.

“People know these murals represent a kind of hope,” he said. “So why would they ruin them? That's like saying they don't want things to improve.”

Qasim Sabti, who runs one of Baghdad's best-known art galleries, said he encouraged about 20 young artists to join the mural effort in the early stages, and he denounces the attempt to push sectarian images.

“It is absolutely rejected by any respectful artist,” Sabti said. “We, as a community of artists, refuse this.”