The first graffiti I ever put up was on a wall outside our house in Baghdad. It was a skull and bones. Patrolling American troops saw it as a threat. They came to the house, searched it, and took pictures of everyone living there. Looking back at it now, I guess it was my first public exhibition.
The war took so much from my family. I was young, but I remember all the horrors. I remember how, during the height of the sectarian war, my cousin Hussein went to work, selling gas canisters, and never came back home. I remember how, one day, we would hear voices shouting, “Set it up here, right here,” right outside our living room window. As we moved the curtains aside to see what was happening, we saw militia men setting up a rocket grenade launcher unveil itself.
A massive battle with Americans would eventually break out, bringing with it a barrage of rocket and gun fire outside our door, over our roofs, and everywhere around us. I remember how me and the other kids snuck out that day, during a lull in the fighting, for a few hours, to play Playstation, only to have our videogame break ended up by a renewed wave of intense gunfire.
My only real escape was the Internet, which I used as a gateway to learn more about the world of graffiti and hip hop. I used to listen to rappers, and then go around the neighborhood tagging their names on the wall. In my notebook, I would dare to draw more complicated pieces. This is how I was exposed to the world of street art. And what I couldn’t write on walls, I would sketch in my notebook.
Like many other students in war torn Iraq, I would eventually drop out of school before I reached grade nine. But success in an admissions test at the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts meant that I could continue my education at the esteemed Iraqi art school. My trips to the Institute were the first time I ventured alone outside the boundaries of my neighborhood in Sadr City. It was a new beginning.
I wanted to set up a graffiti crew in Iraq, but there just wasn’t enough interest in the art form. However, that didn’t quell my desire to work with other artists and young people in Baghdad and beyond. During my first year at the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts, I also got the chance to participate in a TV show where young people would compete to see who would be a peace ambassador for Iraq, kind of like a socially conscious reality TV contest. It was a great opportunity to meet others from across the country, and also an enriching experience to further develop my graffiti into a creative vehicle for social change.
My Second Year
On a cloudy winter day in Baghdad, inside one of the Fine Art Institute’s classrooms, many of us were hanging out in between classes. One of my friends was reading a poem, and just as he finished and sat down, an explosion shook the room. Glass shattered, a bright red yellowish light filled the room, parts of the ceiling collapsed, dust blinded me. I escaped to the sculpture studio, where I would run into shattered statues, and people covered in blood. Eventually, I escaped from the building, and ran aimlessly through the side streets of Al Mansour.
That very same day, I took part in an art workshop organized by the Independent Film Center, in a “life goes on” moment that Iraqis have had to embrace over and over again. In fact, that workshop proved to be so important to me. Through it, I began working on animated films and got a chance to travel to California and Abu Dhabi to take part in festivals and collaborative projects, giving me a much needed respite from the intensity of life in Baghdad.
However, the most influential experience for my growth as an artist came with Sada, a collective that supported contemporary art in Iraq. As part of my work with the organization, which is now closed, I was able to explore art and creativity in a way that isn’t confined to traditional ways of teaching art. With Sada, I began exploring art that wasn’t limited to paint strokes and canvas, and I began to experiment with art forms that reflected my surrounding reality of car bombs and sirens much more accurately. It gave me the courage to execute a daring art project called “I can see you.”
In 2013, frustrated by the corruption, violence and incompetency of Iraq’s political class, I wanted to execute an art piece that directly confronted the Green Zone, the name given to the large swath of land in central Baghdad carved out by the government after the US occupation in 2003. Initially I sought permission to install a large work on the outside of a building near the Green Zone, but security officials deemed it too close, and a threat to the country’s security.
But I couldn’t stay quiet. Baghdad was falling apart. People were dying, but inside the Green Zone, where all the destructive decisions were coming out from, life went on as normal. I wanted to create a piece that penetrated their walls, and remind them that we all were watching, and that their complicity in the destruction of our lives didn’t go unnoticed.
Ironically, after six days, the piece, a large eye, with the words “I can see you,” around it, looking right into the Green Zone, was taken down, and replaced with an election campaign ad for Nouri Al Maliki. Experiences like that, and the constant realities that face everyday people in Iraq are what drive me to keep on creating.