Volume 16 - 2006
Nada Shabout calls it "the museum that the world seems to have forgotten." She has set out to save the memories.
Known as one of the world's leading authorities on contemporary Iraqi art, she has dedicated herself to documenting artwork missing and stolen from the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad, damaged by fire and looting after bombings in 2003.
An assistant professor of art history at the University of North Texas, Shabout is venturing into dangerous territory to save a part of Iraqi culture and history that might otherwise disappear forever.
After bombings during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, looters struck the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art, formerly known as the Saddam Center for the Arts, cutting canvases from the frames and using the wood for fuel.
Sculptures ended up as bird cages on balconies. Priceless works sold on the black market for a few hundred dollars.
Looters also hit the Iraqi National Museum, the home of ancient art and antiquities. But the National Museum, filled with Mesopotamian art that people so readily associate with Iraq, received attention, Shabout says.
The problem at the modern art museum, she says, seemed to fall by the wayside.
About 1,300 of 8,000 original works missing from the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad have been retrieved and are being stored. Nada Shabout is still working to track down the rest.
The artwork cannot be proven missing from the museum without proper documentation. And the longer the work is gone, the more likely it will disappear forever into private collections or suffer damage beyond repair, she says.
"The problem is, if the works are gone, the memory is gone," she says. "And they will have never existed."
Born in Scotland and of Iraqi descent, Shabout lived in Baghdad from age 6 until her graduation from the Baghdad High School for Girls. In 1980, she moved to the United States to pursue a college education, earning degrees in art and architecture from the University of Texas at Arlington.
She returned to Baghdad for the first time in June 2003. Initially, she barely recognized the city, noticing the new highways and monuments added in the 1980s. Then, she saw familiar buildings, disguised by the pall of age and war.
"When I left Baghdad in 1980 it looked like a bright, clean city, but on this trip it looked so rundown and dirty and old," she says. "It was really sad."
Walking on five inches of dust - which was still swirling through the air after the bombings and covered roads, sidewalks and even building interiors - Shabout met artists outside their studios. The buildings, lacking electricity and air conditioning, were often too hot to enter.
Shabout chased down rumors about the art from Iraqi artists, art dealers and gallery owners, learning whose son might have looted the museum and which gallery might have missing artwork.
She used each nugget of information that she collected to move on to the next clue.
She attended several meetings at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. That August, a truck bomb exploded there, killing 17 people. She knew people who had been killed in the blast.
"When you're there, you're careful, but you can't be frightened, or you will be paralyzed," she says.
The artwork cannot be proven missing from the museum without proper documentation. And the longer the work is gone, the more likely it will disappear forever into private collections or suffer damage beyond repair.
About 1,300 of the 8,000 originals missing from the modern art museum have been retrieved and are being stored, Shabout says. She knows that retrieving all of the pieces would be next to impossible. Many are already in private collections, and buying them back would be too expensive.
Instead, she searches for existing photographs of the art and intends to create a catalog with images, titles, artist names, dates and dimensions of any piece owned by the modern art museum. In this way, she says, the memory will live on.
Only recently did Shabout earn a grant - her first on this project. The $10,000 grant from the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq allowed her to travel to Jordan this summer to continue her efforts to document the missing work.
Shabout has collected about 500 images of the missing pieces.
She says she has learned not to become overly optimistic. Before she left for Jordan, she was excited about rumors of a possible museum archive. But she found the information there to be spotty, requiring verification and cross-referencing with her current information.
Once, she obtained a video CD of the museum, but the recording provided few details, she says. She could see only a few of the works and no artist names or titles.
But she has seen victories, like the wooden statue called Motherhood by artist Jaward Salim. The work, which she compares to Picasso in the value of its importance for Iraqi art, was purchased off the black market in late 2003 for $100 or so. The statue is now at a Baghdad gallery until it can be returned to the museum.
Her search to document missing art is about more than the art itself, she says.
"It's about class, social systems and political systems. This is history - a document of what was created then," she says. "It will give us a way of studying successive Iraqi cultures, parts of history that need to be documented. They complete the overall picture of the history of humanity."
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