When the travel writer Robert Byron first glimpsed Baghdad on his journey to Oxiana, he described it as looking like Jerusalem, had it been built out of mud. The great grey and brown concrete walls cast narrow streets into the mould of this ancient city. They provide tiny passages, secrecy, shelter from the sun and, as Iraqi artist Riyadh Neama has noted like many of his generation, a vast canvas that bears, in the graffiti that adorns them, the history of the country.
But it’s not the politically inspired scrawling that attracts Neama. In his latest collection of works currently showing at Courtyard Gallery, the artist explores the way that these walls have provided a friend, a source of comfort for Iraqis, and that the marks of this relationship have found their way onto the walls themselves. ‘Many Iraqis say that the history of Baghdad is written on its walls, but that history is not the centre point of this exhibition,’ says Neama. ‘I’m talking about the present, how the walls figure now.’
Having left Iraq in 1997, we spoke to Neama from his current base in Damascus. Born in 1968, the year that the Ba’ath party – the political group which was later dominated by Saddam Hussein – took power, Neama’s early artistic experiences were formed amid the steadily growing fear that was enveloping the country. But, as he explains, eight months ago he returned to a Baghdad that he no longer recognised.
He’s markedly optimistic about what he found. ‘There is a huge difference between my memories of Baghdad and what I saw this time. I cannot recognise the place. The mood of the people is very different and so many things have changed. The affection between people on the streets is something I found most striking. I saw something primitive in this affection.’
As we talk, Neama begins to direct the source of his hope towards the children of Iraq. He explains that, foremost, this is an exhibition about what he saw on his return to Baghdad: those children and the hope that their presence in the city represents. ‘The walls are like one big toy,’ he notes. ‘The walls become friends for these children, they climb on them, draw on them. Even as the bombs fell, they were playing among the walls. They come to see them as protection.’
Like the fear and chaos that the Ba’ath party brought into his early works, the walls of Baghdad have filtered directly into these latest paintings. Every canvas is a rough grey or mud-like brown; newspaper clippings are just visible beyond Neama’s heavy use of paint. He explains that his canvases all begin with this wall effect, and from there the artist moves outwards to include his figures. It’s a poignant idea – that Neama himself has to rely on these walls to provide structure to his art. Their roughness and barrenness of colour provides something solid and tangible for the enigmatic figures that he places in front of them.
We try to ask Neama about these figures, but he’s slightly cryptic about who they are. Aside from the children that feature in his works, sitting on walls, riding bicycles and looking quizzically at the viewer, he also includes a number of strange, impressionistic, painted silhouettes. He explains that these were shadows he saw cast on the walls of the city.
We can make out a child with a rucksack, the flowing shape of a woman in hijab in the distance. There’s something fleeting about these images, a moment that captures a unique peacefulness cast, once again, onto the very walls around the artist. It’s ironic, then, that Neama would take the impermanence of a shadow as his figure given his direct interest in the solid walls of the city.
Talk turns to the works depicting bicycles, of which there are quite a few in the show. One image shows a solitary figure passing by on a red bicycle. Staring forward, the rider appears to move slowly, the scattering of letters and marks on the wall behind merge into his black form and there’s something exalted about the scene. ‘I’m always trying to show the relationship between stasis and movement, between a still life and a moving life,’ Neama explains and goes on to suggest that the bicycle has become a symbol of movement and, consequently, freedom in his art, which may also go some way to explaining his interest in the impermanence of shadows.
He talks about the importance of bicycles to the children he spoke to on his recent return to Baghdad. Perhaps the self-propulsion that a bicycle represents captures an essential spirit of hope, one that he identifies in the children of the city and how they relate to it.
By climbing, drawing and interacting with the city itself, there’s a movement towards the future in this – it’s almost scribbling and scrambling over the difficult past that the walls are said to contain. ‘Look at the children in Iraq. Look at them,’ Neama says. ‘We can make these children in a good way; we can educate them in the right way. We have to concentrate on the children because they can help Iraq. All I ever want to say in my art is look at them.’
Courtyard Gallery (04 347 9090). Until February 26