Baghdad’s cultural scene sees new beginning

Baghdad’s cultural scene sees new beginning
‘Double Flame,’ by Amir Hazim, captures protesters gathering around a fire during a cold night, 2020. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 February 2022

Baghdad’s cultural scene sees new beginning

Baghdad’s cultural scene sees new beginning
  • With new galleries, renovation projects and live performances, the arts are making a return to the Iraqi capital after decades of war

DUBAI: Baghdad usually makes headlines for violence, political battles, ethnic and sectarian divides, and the bloody geopolitics that have besieged Iraq for decades since the US invasion in 2003. Over recent months, however, the capital city seems to be undergoing an artistic rebirth, with new galleries, festivals, theatre performances, the renovation of Al-Mutanabbi Street — the site of the city’s famed book market, and more.

The revamp of Al-Mutanabbi Street — revealed at the end of December — financed by private-sector banks is perhaps the most obvious sign of regeneration. The street — named after the 10th-century poet Abul Tayeb Al-Mutanabbi — has long been a place where Iraqi cultural elites would gather, ever since its inauguration in 1932 by King Faisal I. It was also the site of the massive youth-led anti-government protests in 2019, which resulted in a violent crackdown — protests which also led to the creation of more art.

Cultural performers and musicians came out to celebrate while colorful fireworks lit up the sky at December’s unveiling of the new-look street. And while high-level security surrounded the scene — reminding visitors of the country’s still-fragile state of corruption, poverty and violence — this new look and feel for the cultural heart of the Iraqi capital proves that the seeds for a cultural rebirth are there.

The graffiti mural reads ‘Humanity is present in the conscience of the paramedics,’ 2019. (GettyImages)

“Because of everything happening in Iraq now, I think it’s a great place for an artist to be inspired and explore working in a variety of media,” Amir Hazim, an Iraqi photographer based in Baghdad, tells Arab News. “However, since the invasion, many Iraqis don’t see the importance of art and its ability to make a change in the world. We have been pushed away from art. We were distracted by the problems in our country.”

Hazim tells how the 2019 protests gave Iraqi artists a chance to engage more with the outside world and “rebuild our scene again.” His photographs from the protests were shown as part of “All I Want Is Life,” a group show at Dubai-based Gulf Photo Plus, in 2020.

Any sign of cultural growth in Iraq inevitably brings to mind Baghdad’s rich artistic history: The city was considered one of the world’s cultural capitals from the 7th to 13th centuries CE during the Golden Age of Islam, and as a Middle Eastern artistic hub from the 1940s until the late 20th century. In the years that followed the 2003 invasion, though, many of its theaters, galleries and other cultural centers were destroyed.

“In 2003, all art institutions collapsed, and almost all professional art teachers and established artists fled into exile, including myself in November 2006,” renowned Iraqi artist Henaa Malallah tells Arab News. “I call it a traumatized art scene. And now, after years of violence and isolation, the scene is more complicated and much weaker. There is a great need for serious research to better understand what has become of the Iraqi art scene.”

The revamp of Al-Mutanabbi Street was revealed at the end of December. (Supplied)

Malallah is currently presenting “Co-Existent Ruins: Exploring Iraq’s Mesopotamian Past through Contemporary Art,” at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery in London through March 19, an exhibition featuring the work of Iraqi artists Rayah Abd Al-Redah; Betoul Mahdey; Fatima Jawdat and Rozhgar Mustafa.

This is by no means the first attempt to revive the Iraqi capital. In 2013, Baghdad was named the capital of Arab Culture, but most of the projects planned to mark that event were never finished, including the Al-Rasheed theater in the central part of the city. But this time round, things seem to be different, thanks to private initiatives and investments.

“People are tired of living in misery. Art gives them hope,” says Ahmed Sabti, 32, a graphic designer and manager of Hewar Art Gallery — one of Baghdad’s longest-running modern and contemporary galleries, opened in 1992 by Qasim Sabti, Ahmed’s father, an artist and collector.

“Former governments always supported art in Iraq, but sadly — after the 2003 war — there hasn’t been any support for artists or art initiatives,” Sabti tells Arab News.

Even Saddam Hussein, during the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Ba’athist Iraq in the 1990s, would give artists money “to buy materials and make exhibitions,” adds Sabti. “Thousands of artists left Iraq after the war and galleries closed. But now we are experiencing some change.”

“We want to support Iraqi artists and show a different side to the country,” Noor Alaa Al-Din, director of The Gallery, an art space that opened in Baghdad in October with a group exhibition of well-known Iraqi artists, told Arab News.

‘Untitled,’ Samah Alalosy, 2021. (Supplied)

The Gallery stages a new exhibition each month, but is also trying “to make exhibitions in a new multidisciplinary way, different from other galleries in Iraq.”

As Al-Din, an artist herself, notes, there are still not many art collectors based in Iraq. Most of their buyers come from abroad.

“We are trying to support artists in different ways, selling their work through Instagram or our website,” she says. “We try and make our artists like stars, by taking videos and pictures of them and posting them on social media.”

Over the last few decades, while the world focused on the violence and despair gripping the capital, the stories of its artists went uncovered. International media and the art world would generally focus on the many Iraqi artists living in exile.

“Often when we think of Iraq’s art scene, we think of accomplished artists who live in Jordan, Lebanon, the UAE or the West, but we forget that there is a vibrant art scene in Baghdad that has manifested itself over the past few years, especially when one considers the art that emerged during the 2019 protests,” Emirati art patron Sultan Al-Qassimi tells Arab News.

The recovering cultural scene in Baghdad also offers a portal through which to better understand the Iraqi people, particularly the youth.

As Al Qassimi puts it: “Art is one way we can connect with Iraqi youth to learn not only about their concerns but also about their dreams and aspirations.”

The roots of a new beginning are certainly there for Baghdad’s cultural scene, but only time will tell if this growth can transcend the country’s complex socio-economic and political reality.

Celebs remember late Tunisian designer at Alaia show in Paris

Model Karlie Kloss attended the show. (Instagram)
Model Karlie Kloss attended the show. (Instagram)
Updated 04 July 2022

Celebs remember late Tunisian designer at Alaia show in Paris

Model Karlie Kloss attended the show. (Instagram)

DUBAI: The who’s who of the fashion industry, including French model Tina Kunakey and Jordanian Romanian footwear designer Amina Muaddi, attended a runway presentation by Alaia on Sunday.

The label, founded by late Tunisian couturier Azzedine Alaïa, released a statement ahead of the ready-to-wear Spring 2023 show that explained why the latest offering is being marketed with the slogan “Rough and Real.”


A post shared by ALAÏA (@maisonalaia)

“Real – as creation should remain far from the likes, far from the screen. These clothes are meant to be worn, meant to be touched and felt. Raw and imperfect, to effect and affect,” a statement signed by creative director Pieter Mulier read.

Shown on the eve of couture week in Paris, Mulier’s third collection for the iconic fashion house took natural fabrics and elevated them into fashion statements. Entire cowhides were shaped into skirts and lengths of boiled cashmere were transformed into cocktail dresses worn with high-heeled fur booties in a line that was equal parts raw and chic.

“It’s about taking all the codes of Azzedine and explaining them to the young generation that don’t really know it,” the designer said backstage, according to WWD. “It’s basically empowering women in a different way than other brands can do,” he added.

The Belgian designer explained that he took many cues from one of Alaia’s 1984 collections, while one design was a replica of a 1992 creation by the Tunisian creative talent that never made it onto the runway.

The glittering front row added to the glamor at the event, with Kunakey joined by her husband, French actor Vincent Cassel, as well as Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson, Karlie Kloss and Laura Harrier.

They took in the show in a gutted out space that is set to be a future Alaïa flagship store and offices.

Known to be a fan of the fashion house, Kunakey has showed off Alaia looks on a number of occasions, including in September 2020 when she attended a lavish Bulgari bash in Rome.

For the occasion she donned an elegant fuchsia-colored gown with a scooped, exposed back and a halter neckline. She elevated the look with a selection of sparkling Bulgari diamond rings and a serpent necklace.

Restaurateur Natasha Sideris talks Saudi plans, new dining concept in Dubai

Natasha Sideris is the founder and CEO of Tashas Group. (Supplied)
Natasha Sideris is the founder and CEO of Tashas Group. (Supplied)
Updated 04 July 2022

Restaurateur Natasha Sideris talks Saudi plans, new dining concept in Dubai

Natasha Sideris is the founder and CEO of Tashas Group. (Supplied)

DUBAI: It’s one of Dubai’s most buzzed about eateries and while the Instagram-worthy Flamingo Room readies to open its doors in Riyadh later this year, we caught up with restaurateur Natasha Sideris to find out more about her success and worldwide expansion plans.

The founder and CEO of Tashas Group, which has a portfolio of varied dining concepts, shed light on why she sees Saudi Arabia as a growing market, as well as her plans for new dining outlets.

“Our decision to expand into Saudi was informed by two things. Firstly, the location that we have found for Flamingo Room by tashas is extraordinary in Bujairi Terrace. Secondly, I think that there are wonderful opportunities in the country. It is a previously untapped market with a large population that is open to new concepts,” Sideris told Arab News.

“As with any new market, there will be challenges,” she added, explain that “we have spent eight years in the UAE forging great relationships with suppliers, shopfitters (and) photographers. It will take time to build relationships with new suppliers, but we are well on our way.”

Curating the concept specially for the Kingdom’s market, the group will open the destination restaurant in a three-storey building inspired by Najd architecture in Diriyah, on the banks of Wadi Hanifah.

The group, which was founded in South Africa and operates out of Dubai in the UAE, has seven brands under its umbrella: tashas, Le Parc by tashas, Flamingo Room by tashas, Avli by tashas, Galaxy Bar, Collective Africa, and 1701.

In addition to its expansion into Saudi Arabia, in the next six to 12 months the group plans to open five other locations, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, South Africa and London.

“We are going to enter the UK market slowly and sensibly,” Sideris revealed. “The pandemic, as well as Brexit, have made a major impact so we want to make sure we adapt the concept to the market and, all going well, we will expand the number of locations. “

The group is also introducing a brand new concept in Dubai’s Alserkal Arts hub. Called Nala, the project will offer diners luxury quick-service, something the founder said is important to her.

“This concept is close to my heart and we have been working on it for a couple of years. So many people are strapped for time yet would like to eat beautiful food in a stunning environment. Our goal is to serve our guests freshly prepared meals quickly and provide fantastic quality at the same time.”

Louvre Abu Dhabi partners with Paris’ Musée d’Orsay to showcase 150 Impressionist works

‘Women in the garden’ by Claude Monet. (Supplied)
‘Women in the garden’ by Claude Monet. (Supplied)
Updated 04 July 2022

Louvre Abu Dhabi partners with Paris’ Musée d’Orsay to showcase 150 Impressionist works

‘Women in the garden’ by Claude Monet. (Supplied)

DUBAI: The Louvre Abu Dhabi has partnered with Paris’ Musée d’Orsay on what is billed as one of the most significant Impressionist exhibitions ever to be held outside France — the upcoming “Impressionism: Pathways to Modernity” show.

Set to run from Oct. 12, 2022, to Feb. 5, 2023, the exhibition will bring together more than 150 works alongside etchings, costumes, film and photography to explore why Impressionism was considered so shocking in the 19th century.

Art enthusiasts will be able to enjoy works from Impressionist masters such as Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne.

Widely seen as a rebellious artistic movement, Impressionism is marked by its shift away from the academic convention and traditions of 19th century European painting, with pioneers known to have regularly caused a stir. In fact, Manet’s “Olympia” is regarded as one of the most scandalous paintings of the time and caused controversy when it was first displayed at the 1865 Paris Salon, while Monet achieved fame for his relaxed style, which was a far cry from the hyper-realistic paintings of the previous era.

The artistic movement “saw some of history’s bravest and most visionary painters embrace and extoll new ways of seeing, making art, and living. They celebrated this thrilling new reality, representing truthful observations of nature and modern life,” the museum’s website reads.

The upcoming exhibition on Impressionism comes as the Louvre Abu Dhabi expands its international collection with the recent announcement of two loans from the Philippines’ Ayala Museum.

Set to be on show until June 2023, the museum’s first-ever showcase of artifacts from the Philippines features two items that date back to the 10th-13th century. The first loan is a gold cup that was recovered from Nabua in the Camarines Sur province of the Philippines. It highlights the striking similarity of Filipino works to the Chinese gold and silverware acquired by Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2019.

The second artifact is a funerary mask from the city of Butuan in the Philippines. It places emphasis on immortality being the universal hope of mankind when faced with death, according to a released statement. This artifact is currently showcased alongside other historical items from the Levant and South America that exemplify this shared tradition.

Model Shanina Shaik kicks off wedding season in style

Model Shanina Shaik has starred in a number of fashion campaigns. (File/ Getty Images)
Model Shanina Shaik has starred in a number of fashion campaigns. (File/ Getty Images)
Updated 03 July 2022

Model Shanina Shaik kicks off wedding season in style

Model Shanina Shaik has starred in a number of fashion campaigns. (File/ Getty Images)

DUBAI: Part-Saudi model Shanina Shaik kicked off wedding season in style by attending the nuptials of fellow Victoria’s Secret model Nadine Leopold and tech entrepreneur Andrew Barclay.

The pair tied the knot at an undisclosed location and while Shaik respected the couple’s privacy and did not post shots of the wedding, she did take to Instagram to show off her wedding attire and shared a short video of fireworks at the reception.

Shaik opted for a cream-colored silk shirt that grazed her baby bump and captioned the photo of her outfit, which she shared on Instagram Stories, “bestie’s wedding.”

The growing baby bump is not news to Shaik’s 2.9 million Instagram followers, who learned of her pregnancy in May.

The catwalk star took to Instagram on Mother’s Day to share the happy news followers, posting three images of her bump with an extended caption in the form of a letter.

“To the new love of my life, thank you for choosing me to be your Mum. I have always wanted you for as long as I can remember, and at times my patience was tested. The timing had to be right, and I can say with confidence that I am ready to be your guide, your protector and your best friend,” she said.

The 31-year-old model, who is of Saudi, Pakistani, Lithuanian and Australian descent, is expecting the baby with her partner Matthew Adesuyan, the head of a record label in Los Angeles.

“As each month goes by during this precious journey of pregnancy, I am learning what the role of being a mother entails. I worry a lot, especially about your wellbeing and development. It’s a feeling that I’ve never experienced before, not even about myself. I would do anything for you, be anything for you and sacrifice anything for you,” she added.

She praised her own mother mentioning that she was raised by an “amazing woman” who taught her a lot about motherhood. “She has set the bar high and I don’t want to disappoint you. I want to raise you as she raised me.”

The mom-to-be ended the lengthy caption saying: “Sharing you with the world today is the most precious gift I could possibly receive on Mother’s Day. Mummy and Daddy can’t wait to meet you!”

Since sharing the news, Shaik has treated fans to regular updates about her pregnancy, including a post late last week that she captioned “baby kicked,” as well as her prenatal stretching tips and skincare routine.

UN report with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture spotlights pandemic’s effect on arts scene

The report’s findings were unveiled in Abu Dhabi. (Supplied)
The report’s findings were unveiled in Abu Dhabi. (Supplied)
Updated 03 July 2022

UN report with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture spotlights pandemic’s effect on arts scene

The report’s findings were unveiled in Abu Dhabi. (Supplied)

DUBAI: While lockdowns, postponements and cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic seem largely in the past, the socio-economic upheaval is still being reckoned with — and the international arts and culture scene is just one of many sectors that has been left reeling.

A new report released by UNESCO in partnership with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DTC), titled “Culture in Times of COVID-19 Resilience, Recovery and Revival,” explores the major global trends that have reshaped the cultural sector due to COVID-19 and provides solutions for its revival.

Research for the report began in September 2021 when the DCT partnered with UNESCO to publish the first global assessment of the impact of COVID-19 across all cultural domains since the advent of the pandemic.

The findings were released during an event late last week in Abu Dhabi where both the DCT’s Chairman Mohamed Al-Mubarak and Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, UNESCO assistant director general, were present.

“Lockdowns experienced by many countries destroyed jobs and business in the culture sector,” Ramirez told Arab News. “This had a severe impact on the sector with more than 10 million jobs lost in 2020 alone and a 20 to 40 percent drop in revenues across the sector.”

Venue-based activities such as theaters and museums — as well as World Heritage sites — were hit hard.

“UNESCO reported that about 90 percent of museums and cultural institutions closed worldwide and about 90 percent of countries saw their World Heritage sites fully or partially closed in 2020,” he added.

“Many artists and cultural professionals have lost their livelihoods; pre-existing inequities have been deepened — including for women and girls — further amplifying social and   economic insecurities. These impacts have brought leading decision-makers and cultural professionals to further rely on the social and economic role of culture as a road to recovery,” stated the report.

Cultural and creative industries, as well as artists, also suffered greatly, emphasized Ramirez and the report. “The estimate is that in 2020 there was a $750bn contraction in the Gross Value Added generated by the cultural and creative industries globally, relative to 2019,” he told Arab News. “We need strong policies that support these industries and the artists. Artists and cultural professionals should not only be adequately recognized henceforth but appropriately credited for their work and contribution.”

Recognizing the importance of museums, cultural institutions and heritage sites is also vital. 

“They not only preserve heritage but offer equal access to culture and provide vital education, social inclusion, cultural diversity and well-being,” said Ramirez.

While the culture sector is beginning to recover, what the pandemic has taught those in the field is that it cannot move forward in today’s world without developing and sustaining a collective ecosystem.

“This includes data-driven policies, inter and intra-sectoral collaboration, economic investment, infrastructure, regulations, socio-economic support and capacity-building,” explained Ramirez.

Crucially, he emphasized, “if we are to preserve our culture, we must ensure the continuity of its creation by supporting artists and professionals in adapting to a changing world; providing equal access and opportunities across the cultural value chain; ensuring social protection and fair retribution for all; harnessing technological change to support innovation and facilitate a diversity of cultural expressions.”

The cultural sector, even in its weakened state, caused many to question what they value and prioritize. Culture in that light is often a source of comfort, connection and beauty for many. Take it away and we lose a vital part of our wellbeing and our communication with others.