Produced by Jon Jensen in Abu Dhabi, UAE; first aired on CNN International on May 1, 2013.
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – For the generation of Iraqi artists who came of age under Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s, one common subject was the dictator himself, often depicted holding a sword or riding an Arabian horse.
Politics aside, those were good days for artists, says Natiq al Alousi, 49, an Iraqi sculptor who considers his commissioned work of Saddam to be an achievement.
“Working as an artist in Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was president, was a golden period for all artists, not just myself. He was supportive of artists and was open to them,” he says. “But we weren’t open to the world for security reasons, and that’s it.”
Receiving small recognition from Saddam was important to him as a budding artist, al Alousi says. As a student he entered a large competition — one that he did not expect to win — and Saddam attended the event.
Upon viewing his work, “Saddam Hussein himself told me that the idea was nice, and that’s the only thing I remember from the whole competition,” he says.
Al Alousi went on to create public sculptures and some that were placed in presidential palaces. Some were made for aesthetics and others to reflect events or issues that the country faced, he says.
His memories of the time under Saddam can verge on idyllic. “There was never a day, for any artist in any form of art, who was forced to work for Saddam Hussein or the country,” he says. “We were all happily working, and there were competitions that anyone can participate in.”
And when Saddam fell in 2003, so too did al Alousi’s statues. He says it is disheartening to think of art being torn down.
Now living in Abu Dhabi, al Alousi still sculpts using various mediums, but there are stumbling blocks. Few people there want to buy large statues, he says, and there is not even a foundry for his bronze works. He has to mail molds more than 1,000 miles away to Egypt, and the bronze rarely survives the return journey intact.
In Abu Dhabi, “the art movement is still yet to begin in the right way. It did start, but it needs more solidarity and extra encouragement from certain entities for it to be mature,” he says.
But al Alousi sees these as only minor problems for his art, which he says is the “purest thing” in his life, a matter of expression, beauty and experimentation.
And he says art has nothing to do with politics or religion. As for his associations with the dictator, it only meant he was at the top of his game.
“I do not regret that I once worked for Saddam Hussein,” he said. “This is history. Only the best artists work for presidents.”