Iraqi art scene suffers as bombers hit public spaces

Iraqi art scene suffers as bombers hit public spaces

BAGHDAD - In a compound ringed with barbed wire in Baghdad, a small group of Iraqi artists gather to sip tea and soft drinks in the shady patches of a walled garden.

For artist Qasim Sabti, who runs the adjoining private gallery, the intimacy of the scene is familiar. Baghdad's cultural community is dwindling and confining itself to refuges like this one as violence rises in the city, he said.

Baghdad was named the 2013 Arab Capital of Culture by the Arab League, but the worst wave of bombings in Iraq in five years is taking its toll on public activities of all kinds, especially in the capital.

"We were dreaming that the Arab festival would help Baghdad become a centre of Arab culture again. But the dream did not come true," Sabti said.

Eighteen months since US troops withdrew from Iraq, suicide attackers wearing explosives or planting bombs in cars have increasingly targeted public spaces such as cafes and sports events.

Sabti's gallery now sees only one or two visitors a month in a district where there have been frequent bomb attacks.

The violence, and more than two years of civil war in neighbouring Syria, has aggravated deep-rooted sectarian divisions. As public life and opportunities to socialise shrink, communities are even more divided, Sabti says.

"Iraqi society is a mosaic - you can see all of the colors," he said, referring to the different religious and ethnic backgrounds of the population. "Now the picture is disappearing, it is broken."

Plans for the cultural capital festivities started more than two years ago during a time of relative calm when restaurant openings and concerts led to a revival in entertainment.

The government has held a few events this year, including concerts and exhibitions, but there has been little advertising and limited participation.

Down the road from Sabti's gallery, at Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts, student filmmaker Omar Yaseen talks about how limited public space has restricted his work.

"The roads are blocked, blast walls are back in the street and this means that there is a shrinking of space in the capital," the 22-year-old said in the fortified campus garden. "We wish it would become stable and safe again and to see Baghdad as a capital without cement walls."

The monthly toll of Iraqis killed has risen at times this year to the highest since inter-communal bloodletting peaked in 2006-07, raising concerns of a return to civil war. Police have ramped up security, with extra checkpoints and restrictions on movement.

The security measures are especially difficult for Yaseen, who wanted to shoot a film for his graduation project. He had to beg for permission from authorities to use his video camera in a city where any electronic device is viewed as suspicious.

"In Baghdad, the camera is just like a weapon," said Yaseen, who has been stopped many times at checkpoints. "Unfortunately I worry about getting approval for filming before I even think of ideas for the movie."

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