Works of modern art also a casualty of post-war chaos


IRAQ: Iraq's most famous living sculptor has seen his work looted and broken, reports Michael Jansen.

While the archaeological world has raised a hue and cry over the looting of the Iraq Museum, regarded as the fifth most important in the world, no one on the international scene has expressed serious concern over the pillaging of the Modern Art Museum. Perhaps because it was known as the "Saddam Centre" and had a large number of images of the ousted president. But the museum's contents were not limited to "Saddams". This facility, now stripped of its contents and ravaged, housed a large collection of Iraqi paintings, ceramics and sculpture representing half a century's work of the country's artists, regarded as the most talented in the Arab world.

The oeuvre of Iraq's most famous living sculptor, Mr Muhammad Ghani, was displayed on the third floor of the centre. "There were 180 pieces," he said. "They broke what they did not steal. When I went to see what had happened I walked over the pieces of plaster sculptures which I made in the fifties. The looters also took away three important bronze pieces from 1948, 1949 and 1950. They are irreplaceable. I have photos of them but no models . . . From the rest of the museum thousands of pieces have been stolen, all Iraqi art. Many were the work of pioneer artists of the early part of the last century." He shook his head, a grave look on his long face.

Mr Ghani, trained in Iraq and Italy, has fashioned doors for the UNESCO building in Paris and a church in Italy and has built fountains and created bronze statues for fountains in several Arab countries.

He says there are only two ways to secure the return of the stolen objects and paintings. Put advertisements in the press calling upon people to return them or offer to buy them back. "Some of the thieves will sell the pieces they have for very little. They don't have any idea of their value," he said.

The US-led occupation administration opposes offering any financial reward for the return of modern art. So far a group of young artists has managed to regain 1,400 paintings without offering any financial inducements.

But they fear that those still holding these works of art may export them for sale in Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon, where there is great demand for Iraqi art and prices are high.

Statuary decorating Baghdad's streets, parks and fountains are also being stolen. "The statues of Saddam are not the only ones which are disappearing." Mr Ghani said a three-meter high statue of a "beautiful young girl holding Aladdin's lamp pouring water" into a basin was stolen from in front of the Ministry of Tourism.

"They came with a crane, tackle and a lorry and took it away. American soldiers only 20 or 30 meters from the spot did nothing to stop them. I'm afraid they will come for more. Perhaps Sheherazade [the mythical teller of the tales of the 1,001 nights] in the park near the \ river . . . Perhaps al-Muttanabi [the greatest Arabic poet]."

Mr Ghani has not done any work since the war. "Painters and plastic artists are too upset to carry on," he said. After years of deprivation of materials under sanctions, "we have another kind of embargo now".

Sculptors like him who cast bronze cannot find supplies, either of bronze or wax, for making models. "We used to get all the bronze we wanted, from dismantled machines, guns and destroyed sculptures...but not now. Although they have torn down all those Saddams [hundreds of statues of the former president], there is no bronze in the market. It is being exported to Jordan, Turkey and Iran where it fetches high prices. Here it used to be cheap. We used to get all the wax we wanted before the war from oil...but now the machines which produced it have stopped. There's no wax," he paused.

"The Americans don't understand that Iraq is a cultured country. Iraqis are proud of their art. Would the Americans agree if someone went and started to steal their sculptures?"