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The Freedom of Despair: Modern Art and Political Violence in Baghdad, 1941-1979


This dissertation asks what the artwork could offer when other forms of action and expression had been foreclosed by political violence. It considers art practice in Baghdad during the nineteen-sixties and seventies, in relation to the collapse of liberal forms of politics and, later, the collapse of a form of anticolonial liberation struggle introduced by the Palestinian liberation movement, which subsequently provided a framework for leftist politics. My argument is that, during these years, the modern artwork underwent a transformation that reconstituted it as the site of a particular kind of speech, implicated in a particular kind of politics, neither liberal nor anticolonial. Following the eclipse of the public sphere in the aftermath of a coup by the Ba’ath Party in 1963, it came into interaction with an ancient tradition of mourning that precipitated a shift in art practice from a concern with representation to a practice of rhetoric. Over the nineteen-seventies, as the possibilities for political action narrowed, this practice of rhetoric evolved a distinctive critique of violence.

Organized into three parts, the dissertation charts a trajectory of art practice, across which the artwork became a site of critique. Part One examines the establishment of a discursive foundation for the practice of modern art in Baghdad during the nineteen-forties and fifties, on the basis of a medieval history of manuscript illustration and in the context of a broader cultural renewal. It focuses on the artist Jawad Salim’s (1920-1961) discovery of Yahya al-Wasiti’s illustrations of the Maqamat of Hariri, and the ways in which that discovery shaped his conception of modern art. Part Two examines the transformation of art practice following the persecution of leftists by the Ba’ath Party in 1963. It focuses on how, in circumstances where neither an appeal to the law nor political action were possible, the artist Kadhim Hayder (1932-1985), in a series of paintings entitled The Epic of the Martyr [Mulhamat al-Shahid], set a new paradigm for art practice by introducing into the artwork a rhetorical form drawn from the mourning celebrations that commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam al-Husayn. Part Three traces the legacy of this rhetorical form in the practice of the artist Dia Azzawi (1939-). It focuses on a critique of violence he developed over the course of the nineteen-seventies, following the collapse of the Palestinian liberation movement.

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