Tracing Iraqi Artists: From Shadow to Light

Curated by Zainab Hakim and Serena Safawi


Artists capture the zeitgeist of a society, in both their artwork and their social productions. The collective activities of artists, at a given historical moment, offer a material narrative that traces the values, anxieties, hopes, and limitations of their world. Artists, poets, and writers, thus, act as first responders to social injustice. For this reason, our exhibit focuses on contemporary visual art as the threadline through which to understand Iraqi struggle and resistance.

An integrally artistic culture, Iraqis perform resilience both at home and in diaspora, as they respond to their national history in the wake of fascism, isolation, and American occupation. 

As contemporaries of the War on Terror, we notice troubling trends in Western discourse about Iraqi people and their institutions. We particularly observe the impulse to make the United States omnipotently bear the responsibility of destruction or, in contrast, become completely absolved of blame. Both of these perspectives fail to account for the complexity of Iraq’s political developments and historical agency. 

Avoiding the over assumption of American responsibility allows us to acknowledge the full picture of the Iraqi experience: the rise of fascism, sectarianism, and vitally, the difficulties of becoming an Oil Nation in the global market. Taken together, these various factors illustrate the reasons for continued instability following the end of American occupation. The work of artists and the actions of their supporting institutions concretize our analysis, as visual art becomes a manifestation of Iraq’s relationship to resources — both fiscal and cultural — and globalization, to which the country’s connection has been tumultuous. 

This exhibit features objects sourced from libraries, personal photos, and social media pages from Iraq, America, and Europe to form one perspective of art’s role in modern Iraqi history. 

Note: The items selected for this exhibition represent cultural perspectives from a specific place or time. Some of the items contain culturally sensitive or racist material and may be considered offensive or objectionable to some audiences. This content is not provided as an endorsement from the library but offered to allow space for our community to confront challenging histories through scholarship and discussion. Please use your discretion while exploring this site.