About the Author: Aaron Snipe is a Foreign Service Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Muthanna, Iraq.
A few weeks ago I posted a blog entry entitled, “The Colors of Warka,” in which I chronicled the United States Ambassador’s trip to Muthanna. During that visit the Ambassador attended the first-ever exhibition for women artists in Muthanna. I wrote a bit about the artists in that blog but wanted to share an update.
In late 2008, when we learned that the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq was coming to Muthanna, we assembled a group of women artists from the province interested in working with the PRT on a cultural program. We asked them to contribute their paintings for a special gallery showing in honor of the Ambassador’s visit. We put it together in a few weeks, and the event was splendid. But, there was much more to the event than just a special showing for the Ambassador. The PRT, in cooperation with a local Iraqi NGO, wanted to support art in Muthanna and planned to hold a major exhibit of close to 100 paintings – all by the women of the province. Each of the participating women received canvases, paints and an easel. We gave the forty women a month to paint, after which time, the exhibit would open in three of Muthanna’s largest cities: Samawa, Rumaytha, and Khider.
After months of planning and preparation, the exhibit opened during March in Muthanna’s capital city, Samawa. It was well attended...or so I was told. Much to my disappointment, I missed the opening, but one of our local Iraqi staff who was able to attend reported that the event was a success. Eight media organizations (print and television) covered the event and a broad cross-section of Muthanna’s citizens came out to see this landmark exhibit.
Back at base, I was eager to get to the exhibit. After a bit of negotiation to arrange transportation, my colleague Albert Hadi and I found our way to Samawa for the second day of the exhibit. The NGO that co-sponsored the event did a terrific job decorating the exhibit hall and lighting the room. Many of the artists were at the exhibit again on the second day, and it was great to see them. What struck me, though, was how many other people were present. A college art professor had brought his forty male students to see the exhibit. Writers, poets, and other members of the artistic community were viewing the paintings and chatting with one another. At one point, I looked over and saw the Director General of Veterinary Affairs, whom I remembered from a PRT-sponsored sheep-dipping event some months ago (that is another story for another day). He told me he saw the exhibit on the news last night and decided to come to see it himself. The atmosphere was so relaxed and reminded me of any number of art museums I had been to in other parts of the world. Patrons, both men and women, were leaning in to look at the artists’ signatures, men sometimes disagreeing on the meaning and significance of this painting or that painting. For a moment, I forgot I was in Iraq.
For me, the exhibit was an example of public diplomacy. The fact that the United States was supporting art — its creation and exhibition — in Muthanna was a signal to the Iraqi people that the relationship between our two countries was normalizing. I was pleased to see that the artists had not shied away from portraying the difficulties facing Iraq. When we distributed the supplies a few months ago, I informed the women that they should feel free to paint whatever they liked. I made a special point of letting them know that I had no expectation that they should create art that was flattering to the United States. If there were negative feelings about the U.S. that these women wanted to express through their art, we supported that whole-heartedly. Negative feelings about the U.S. presence in Iraq expressed on a canvas were far more palatable to this diplomat than many of the alternatives.
My colleague Albert and I spent a great deal of time talking with all of the artists. What meant the most to me was the fact that many of the women had brought their families to meet us. This was a significant detail that couldn’t be ignored. Married or single, it is considered highly inappropriate for a young Iraqi woman to speak about meeting and talking with an unmarried man. But, through our meetings and planning, we had established a foundation of mutual respect with these women. This respect had begun to break down and dispel the obvious cultural prohibitions. I had never shaken hands with any of these women, and we always kept a respectable distance from one another as we spoke, but there was a genuine respect and admiration that we all shared. One woman asked for my e-mail address. She told me that her brother wanted to write me a letter to thank me. He wanted to write “to the American who respected his sister.” Respect.
One final thought on the exhibit before I conclude. The stories of these women shared one common thread: they were all taking risks by participating in this event. One of the women (not pictured above or in any photos related to this blog entry) told me a story that summed up the great risk involved in attempting to pull off the exhibit. She told us that she had watched the other women giving media interviews at the opening and wanted desperately to do so herself. Summoning up the courage to do so, she approached a reporter from a Muthanna-based television station. “I would like to be interviewed,” she said. She told us that she stood before the camera and spoke of her art, what art meant to her, and how she felt she had expressed her voice, publicly, for the first time in her life. She said she felt a sense of triumph after the interview, but that soon after a sense of dread overtook her. Her husband would certainly beat her that evening. “It was worth it,” she told us. “To have spoken to so many, to have said what I said before the people, it would be worth the punishment.” She described the long ride home, dreading the beating, but confident in her decision to speak out. When she arrived home, her husband was waiting at the door with his cell phone, in hand. "Did you see yourself?” he said. “You looked great! Mash'allah! You were on television! My wife was on television! I called my family and everyone I know. Look at you! You've made our family famous! This is wonderful!" She told us that when she walked in, her children embraced her and her husband told her that he was so very proud of her. She told us that later that evening - after her husband had finished calling everyone he knew - that he told her, "I never looked at you as an artist, only as the woman who cleans the house and raises the children. But, today, I am so proud of you."
I needed tissues more than my Kevlar vest and helmet that day, and any day that happens in Iraq is a good day.