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Struggling to maintain livelihood, some artists take flight

Iraqi artist Nebil Anwar has his paintings displayed at a church in Zarghe, Jordan. Anwar fled Iraq to avoid violence. Iraqi artist Nebil Anwar has his paintings displayed at a church in Zarghe, Jordan. Anwar fled Iraq to avoid violence. (Alexandra Zavis/los angeles times)

BAGHDAD -- Desperate for cash, his dreams of an art career swept away by war, Nebil Anwar turned his knack with a paintbrush to producing portraits of US troops' wives and children.

It was hardly art, but it was a living. It also could have gotten him killed.

Men with a radical faith and armed with Kalashnikovs are the law in many Baghdad neighborhoods, so even innocuous contact with US forces is enough to be labeled a collaborator.

It was not supposed to be like this, said Anwar, who has since left Baghdad for Jordan. When Saddam Hussein's statue was pulled down in Baghdad's Paradise Square in April 2003, young artists were among the first to embrace the possibilities of a new era. Within weeks a new statue rose in its place.

The abstract tribute to freedom stands there still, its garish green surface chipped, faded, and pocked with what appear to be bullet holes.

Like other segments of Iraqi society, the art community is withering under a daily assault of car bombs, kidnappings, gunfights, and mortar blasts. Dictatorship has given way to the suffocating strictures of religious extremists, who frown on most forms of artistic expression, consider sculpture idolatrous, and a painting of a nude an insult to Islam.

Many of Iraq's artists have joined the flight that has drained the country's intellectual reserves. For those who remain, it is a constant struggle to keep producing work that few will ever see and most cannot afford.

Anwar traces his love of painting to early childhood, when he would watch his sisters sketch in pencil.

After his father died, Anwar joined Hussein's air force and qualified as a pilot. It was a decision that would haunt him. After Hussein's fall, when he pursued a master's degree in fine arts, Shi'ite Muslim students started asking pointed questions about his past.

Many former pilots have fallen victim to Shi'ite death squads, and Anwar was terrified the same would happen to him. Anwar, a Kurd, lived in a Sunni neighborhood and pilots had been considered elite members of the military under Hussein.

Anwar's fellow art students and some of his teachers seemed preoccupied with currying favor from Iraq's new leaders.

"All the exhibitions by students are about religion; that destroyed me," he said. "Before, it was all propaganda about the nation. Now it is propaganda about religion."

He dropped out of college and tried to make a living selling paintings inspired by his city's sandy, sun-bleached hues. After 10 months of penury, he gave up and started turning out portraits of Americans.

His renditions of wedding and baby photos were a popular souvenir among troops deployed in Iraq. A dealer with contacts inside the fortified Green Zone, where many foreigners live and work, brought him snapshots to copy. Working secretly from a room in one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods, Anwar could produce two or three paintings a day at $50 apiece, a small fortune in postwar Iraq.

But Anwar seemed to be spending half his time peering over his shoulder. An unexpected knock on his studio door sent him into a panic. Finally, the pressure became too much to bear, and he fled to Jordan last year.

"Art will die in Iraq," he predicted gloomily. "Art comes from the artists, and if the artists go, then art will go with them."

The many civilizations that passed through Iraq left an imprint on its artists, from the winged bulls that guarded Assyrian city gates to the elegant calligraphy of Islamic art. Now those who inherited that proud tradition are scattered across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.

The exodus began during the UN embargo imposed after Iraq's 1991 defeat in the Persian Gulf War. The local art market collapsed, because no one had money for anything but essentials. Tourists no longer visited, and it became difficult for artists to exhibit their works abroad.

There are a few who have not given up hope. When everyone else was closing last year, Hassan Nasar opened his Madarat gallery, not far from Hewar in Baghdad. Since then, he has offered a packed schedule of exhibitions, lectures, and poetry readings.

For Nasar, the gallery embodies his belief in the power of the arts to open the eyes of those who follow blindly; it restores sanity amid the bloodshed and creates new heroes for a generation growing up under the sway of gunmen.

"Art is part of life here in Iraq," he said. "Without it, people would become like monsters."