In Baghdad, New Sculpture Replaces Hussein Statue

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Hamad calls the Najeen Group "an old family"—formed in 1991 in the wake of gulf war I. The collective of actors, artists and filmmakers has worked mainly underground to avoid run-ins with Hussein's Ministry of Culture, which approved work for public display.

"Building the sculpture was not a political dream, but an artistic one," Hamad says. "The last thing artists think about is politics. Politicians get paid to talk, that's the opposite of what artists do."

After Hussein

On May 4, the Najeen Group staged a new play, They Passed By Here, in the Al Rashid Theater, Baghdad's most famous, now badly looted. It was the first play performed since the city fell—and the first uncensored play in decades.

The Najeen took the show to the Kurdish area of Sulaymaniyah. Before Saddam Hussein fell, Iraqis in Baath-controlled areas were forbidden to travel there.

The group plans to build a sculpture in the Kurdish town of Halabja telling the story of the chemical-weapons attack in 1988 by the Baath party figure Ali Hassan al Majeed, known as Chemical Ali, that killed thousands of civilians.

Dhurgham Abdulwhid, a painter, has been a member of Najeen for 12 years. He wants to open a gallery. Formerly he displayed his avant-garde work in university student apartments.

Asked about Najeen's future, Abdulwhid says, "I beg god to give Najeen a chance," then corrects the translator: "I beg the people to give us a chance, not god."

In Baghdad, people yearn for the restoration of order and basic services like electricity. But now they also will have more choice about their future and the role that art will play in it.

The Najeen artists are ambitious for art to be visible everywhere and to help redeem the destruction in Baghdad. "I want to sweep all the dust off my beautiful city," Hamad says.

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