Friday, October 31, 2008

Art as Life

I was first introduced to Mohamed Ghani's work when i was in Baghdad before the invasion. A new piece was being completed in the plaza on Abu Nuwas street by the Palestine Hotel. It was cast in bronze and was called "Magic Carpet". After years of sanctions and the threat of a new war looming on the horizon, the piece evoked different possibilities for the people of Iraq. Taking the theme from the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, it depicted Aladdin and Jasmine soaring skyward. The sculpture has survived the shock and awe campaign and the years of occupation. It remains a beacon of possibilities not yet realized for the children of Iraq.

As we wander through Mohamed Ghani's small studio he talks of the bronze pieces representing the losses felt since the invasion in 2003. He speaks of his son who was in Sweden for eleven months trying to secure passports for his wife and children, in the end to no avail. He speaks of the pain of Iraqi families who are now separated with family members in Iraq, Jordan, Syria and others resettled around the world. This alone is deeply traumatic for a culture that treasures family and where many extended families live in the same home.

As we talk he gently kneads a small ball of clay between his fingers. He stands next to a piece carved in stone and says he has a dream to create it one day in Baghdad. The piece depicts a column, cracked and falling and a man with five arms struggling to hold it upright. Mohamed explains that the column represents the culture of Iraq. The column is falling and if it does, all will be destroyed. The man with the five arms represents the Iraqi people who are protecting the culture. The five arms each represent one of the arts: theater, plastic arts (sculpture), poetry & literature, painting and film. The piece is a symbol for people to remember what happened during occupation.

As the occupation forces entered Baghdad after days of intense bombing, they permitted the looting of priceless pieces of Iraqi history and culture. Mohamed Ghani lost 150 pieces at the Museum of Modern Art. The sculptures that were too heavy to steal were smashed to bits on the museum floor. When he confronted an American soldier and asked how this was allowed to happen, he was told by the young soldier that "it isn't my job". Mohamed Ghani looks at me with disbelief in his eyes, and with deep sadness says, "This is what he said to me, it isn't my job."

"I have many dreams", he says, "I want to do a testimony of all that has happened in Iraq. I dream of doing many pieces. One will be a man with a kaffieh sprawled on the ground with a US soldier's foot holding his head to the ground. Offending him in front of his whole family, his wife, his children. I saw this with my own eyes. Another would be an Iraqi woman searched by a male US soldier. His hands were all over her. In our culture unfamiliar men do not touch women. It simply is not done. Couldn't a female soldier search her? Why humiliate her in front of her husband? She was crying, she couldn't do anything. I want to document this. Create symbols for people to remember. Yes I have many dreams." As with any great artist, Mohamed Ghani's art transcends the personal and speaks of an entire cultures suffering.

Sitting opposite us, Mohamed speaks animatedly, waving his arms to emphasize his points. "I don't like politics. I don't like to be a politic man. Never in my life have I been a politic man. You have to be a big, big liar. And what about your President? He says God told him to go to war. In this age? Is this possible? Which God? The God I worship loves, he does not hate. Can it be God told him this? How?"

Asked what he would say to an American audience, he said he would ask a simple question, "Why did you destroy our country? You could have had everything. You could take the petrol. You could have taken Saddam- you put him there, why couldn't you just take him away and put someone else there? Without all the killing, without all the bombs. Why the bombs, bombs, bombs? Why? I lost a daughter after the bombing. The doctors couldn't identify her illness, they said they had not seen it before."

"I am not a politic man. I am an Iraqi man and I feel what has happened and I say what I feel. An American general knows nothing about Iraq. We love to sing and dance and make music. This is true throughout our history. We have a culture. Iraq can not be destroyed. Like the grass, the more you cut it down, the stronger it grows. As he says this Mohamed Ghani looks tired. We have taken enough of his time- he has dreams to realize.