BAGHDAD’S ENDANGERED STATUES: Vital messages on culture and Iraqi identity soon lost forever?

By Mustafa Jamal Murad in Baghdad

When walking around the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, there are plenty of monuments and statues to see: At least 40 significant examples created by both Iraqi and foreign sculptors. However, many of them are in disrepair, damaged by conflicts, or simply neglected over decades.

One of the earliest statues of Baghdad was that of British officer, General Stanley Maude, who led the British military in Iraq during World War I, says Ihab Ahmed, a lecturer at Baghdad’s college of fine arts, who is himself responsible for a number of sculptures around the city.

The statue, which shows the general seated on a horse, was unveiled in 1923 and stood near the British embassy until July 1958 when angry Iraqis destroyed it after a populist coup that removed the Iraqi king from power (he had been supported by the British) .

The first statue with a more homegrown feel was that of former Iraqi prime minister, Abdul-Muhsin al-Saadoun, created by Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica and erected in 1933, Ahmed continues. And some of the last were those by deceased Iraqi artist, Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, who passed away in 2011. His statue, Baghdad Poetry, was erected in 2013, after his death.

What many of the city’s statues and monuments have in common is their dark colour, Ahmed points out. This is because of the extreme Iraqi environment.

“The choice of materials must be compatible with the environment of the place, so you see Iraqi statues made of materials that can withstand harsh climates,” he explains, “Most of them are oxidized bronze.”

The city’s monuments conveyed so many different messages, Ahmed notes. One of his own sculpture is called Rebirth and shows a man rising from his grave. “Despite everything, Iraqis want to rise again,” Ahmed explained the work.

Local journalist Mustafa Ibrahim believes that the 1961 statue, Mother, by the late Khalid al-Rahal, conveys a similar message. The mother looks into the future, he suggests, another sign of Iraqi resilience.

Ahmed has several sculptures around the city including a large bronze of a former Iraqi prime minister and is currently working on a new project that will commemorate Iraqi officers who lost their lives in the line of duty.

Ahmed fears that his own sculptures may go the way of others in Baghdad though, if he doesn’t put in special efforts to maintain them. Many monuments in the city have been destroyed or damaged due to conflict, war or neglect. Sculptures need constant maintenance, he argues, especially the older ones made by pioneering Iraqi artists.

“I only recently discovered that the statue, Mother, by al-Rahal is really damaged because it’s been painted with materials that don’t suit the stone,” he says. “And there are plenty of other similar examples.”

One of the most prominent is the Freedom sculpture in Tahrir Square. It may be one of the best-known sculptures in the city but it too is in danger.

“It’s been neglected for 30 years,” Ahmed says. Part of the reason for this is that Iraq lacks specialists who can maintain and restore such sculptures. “We actually need to send people abroad to get the proper training,” he notes.

Journalist Ibrahim confirms that a lot of Baghdad’s well-known statues were also removed or destroyed due to political changes and conflict. That includes a monument consisting of two palms, that were meant to show the unity of the Iraqi people, as well as the country’s Uknown Solider sculpture, that showed a mother mourning her dead son.

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