Al-Nasiri’s notebooks on Iraq, art, and the distraction of the living


Haifa Zankana

Dozens of books are published each year in Iraq, most of them by Americans who were, or still are, serving in the American army. They participated for varying lengths of time, whether directly in the invasion or the fighting, or indirectly, in the ransacking termed ‘the reconstruction of civil society’. These ‘experiences’ are presented, in English, to the world from the perspective of the occupier as liberator bearing the burden of a humanitarian mission or an adventure. Its members are associated by an extraordinary friendship which is misunderstood by the people of the occupied country, and they are there to defend the people from ‘insurgents and terrorists’ or as a military lesson in combatting uprising, which deserves to be taught to future generations of imperialist, expansionist forces.

A simple statistic which invites remark is the number of books published since the 2003 invasion, and even today, in contrast to the scarcity from the pre-invasion period, which laid the groundwork for the largest American military aggression since its defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s. This statistic applies both to Iraqi and Arabic publishing. The number of published books by independent Iraqis about the period following the thirtieth attack after the occupation of Kuwait, and the subjection of Iraq to a combat siege, does not exceed the number of fingers on one hand. Perhaps the closest to the hearts of readers, traversing the borders of Iraq to the world, are the ‘Baghdad Diaries’ by the late artist Nuha al-Radi, which documented, daily, humanly, the comprehensive crimes against the people, crimes which wished to be forgotten, which were disguised under cover of steel, for fear of one day being given responsibility.

This cover can be penetrated from time to time, in the shape of those sticks of dynamite labelled ‘books’. For books, manufactured from paper, have tremendous ability to break fetters, whatever material they are made from. Their strength transcends the limits of place and time, if they are philosophical, creative, literary and artistic works by artists whom ideology has failed to mould, who retain their words and their colours, and independent lives, like chaos that cannot be tamed. Colours here meaning in their ordinary, visual sense, and not metaphorical. In his novel German Lesson published in 1968, the German novelist Siegfried Lenz examined the danger of colour to the Nazi regime. The hero of the novel is a policeman living in a remote German village, whose only concern is the performance of his duties, including when he is ordered to surveil and prevent his childhood friend from painting. The policeman doesn’t understand the reason behind this, or the source of the danger, as his friend draws only abstraact paintings. He asks his friend for an explanation before he arrests him. “It is the colours…It is the colours”, comes the response.

On the strength of colour and the path of a life filled with creativity and love, I am reading Artist’s Notebooks, one of the few books capable of illuminating the period of Iraqi history which some would like to banish to a dark corner, unmentioned. The book is characterised as the product of the life of a complete team, composed of two people who are gathered (I use the present tense purposely) by a lasting love showing genuinely artistic and poetic Iraqi creativity. These two are the late artist Rafa al-Nasiri and his life partner, the poet and art critic May Muzaffar. Muzaffar supervised the preparation of the book with Sonia Timberland, and its introduction and publication in English, in a fine edition whose detailed attention to the value of each colour gradation gives the book vitality. In the introduction to the book, May Muzaffar remains faithful to the idea of artistic connection which she addressed in her book, Modern Art in Iraq: Connection and Differentiation. She applies those ideas this time to the life journey of Rafa al-Nasiri, with its various junctures, and his ‘notebooks’ which include his colour and intellectual diaries across the decades. It is a journey that began, and continued for the two together, on a solid ground “On which was set down a series of great civilisations…It seems that all these civilisations have been rooted in the experience of the Iraqi artist, and deeply etched in his visual memory. This has helped him to adopt a clear intellectual position on art and its many functions,” as Rafa describes in his book, Perspectives and Mirrors: Essays in Visual Art.

Rafa says about the notebooks: “In 1989, I acquired in Beijing a collection of folded notebooks measuring approximately 625x35cm. And after my return to Baghdad, I painted some of these notebooks with my fingers, a Chinese method of ink painting, using acrylic instead of ink. Each notebook is dedicated to a place that I loved, including the Tikrit notebook, the Beijing notebook, the Lisbon notebook, and the Asilah notebook.”

Over the years, the notebooks grew larger, resembling carvings so large the viewer must turn to see the entirety of. They include works celebrating poetry and art, from al-Mutanabbi and al-Wasati, to al-Jawahiri, Mahmoud Darwish, Etel Adnan and May Muzaffar. The Baghdad notebook preserves the city’s art and poetry: “In 1991, during the war, I painted a notebook of the same size, and it is an expression of the protest and resistance, painted in black and brown, of course, with my palms and fingers, which I dipped in colours and struck the paper with quick and emotional movements.” These angry colours, charged with emotion, made al-Nasiri not know sleep, and words appeared. We can almost hear them. They are the voice of an artist screaming amidst the distraction of the living. With black palm and fingers separated by a red-coloured palm, we see “it is a dirty war.” With the explosion of palms coloured black and grey and spatterings of shades of red, we see “Baghdad groaning from her wounds.” The marrying of violet with borders or smears of black are like the effect of depleted uranium, and we see “Baghdad living in terror, horror, panic, fear, anger and hatred… from 11 at night until 4 in the morning. Five hours of shelling and iron and gunpowder between terrifying sounds of the planes and missiles.”

The 2nd March entry in the Baghdad notebook includes the figure 43 written in a large childish scrawl, in almost impermeable ink, and four semi-aligned black dots in empty space. In the right corner is a drop of red ink, and beside it the number 91. We read: “forty-three days of war…war…Not the first or the second.. but it is unique war. It is not the third, but it is…war (THE WAR).
It ended… and then began the worst and the darkest.”

What we realise well, now, is that 1991 was the year which prefaced the destruction which Iraq is still living in the shadow of today. So can the artist see beyond what others see?

Translated by Conor Fagan

Original article found here.

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