Iraqi artist Esam Pasha at his studio in New London, Connecticut.

On a warm afternoon in early March, I went to New London, Connecticut to visit Esam Pasha, a 30-year-old Iraqi artist. At the time, Esam lived in an apartment at the Sapphire House, a renovated mansion, owned by the Griffis Art Center, where he was an artist-in-residence. I had met Esam in January at a gallery in New York’s SoHo district, which had opened an exhibit featuring Esam and five others, billed as the first opportunity for Americans to view works by leading contemporary Iraqi artists.

Only six months prior to the exhibit opening, Esam was still living in Iraq. The juxtaposition raised several questions. How did Esam become an artist in the first place? How did he end up in the United States? I also wondered how Esam’s experiences could serve as a window to view and understand Iraq’s past and present.

Sitting in the living room of the Sapphire House, over coffee and countless cigarettes, we began talking. A former national judo champion and discus thrower, Esam has an imposing presence that is offset by a calm demeanor. Flecks of grey in his beard make him look older than he is. Born in Baghdad in 1976, he is one of seven children. His parents divorced in the 1980s. His grandfather, Nuri al-Said, was prime minister until he was assassinated in 1958 as part of the coup that toppled the Iraqi monarchy.

Growing up, Esam studied English at school, which he perfected by watching American movies, and then taught himself three other languages. On weekends, he prowled a book market on Mutanabi Street. It was there that he caught his first glimpses of Western art. He devoured a wide range of art books, but was particularly drawn to Klimt, Miro, Rembrandt, and Durer.

Esam lived through the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the ensuing sanctions. He worked odd jobs as a teenager in construction, carpentry, and commercial painting before becoming a full-time artist in 1999.

During this period, Iraq suffered years of economic hardship and isolation, and as such, only two art galleries in Baghdad remained open. The only patrons were United Nations and NGO workers who typically requested works depicting scenes of “exotic Arabia.” Even these pieces fetched prices so low it was hardly worth the time and expense of artistry, Esam said. “You would get more money if you just broke a bronze sculpture down and instead sold the bronze.”

The intelligence service, or mukhabarat, kept a watchful eye on Iraqi artists for any sign of dissent. Being seen with foreigners raised suspicions. When Esam got a commission from the U.N’s Baghdad office for a panorama, the mukhabarat made it clear that he should not paint anything political. Stick to landscapes or abstracts, they said.

A sense of paranoia became widespread. Some friends warned Esam about a painting he had lying around his apartment of an eagle soaring down. Government censors could interpret the eagle as symbol of the regime’s demise, they said.

Any remnants of an authoritarian state quickly dissolved as the American military moved into Baghdad. In its place emerged a bonanza of opportunity, particularly for an English-speaker, like Esam.

Esam remembers the early days after the U.S. invasion. After the fall of Baghdad, the Americans set up a base near his home. Officials began recruiting local Iraqis for hire. Esam waited in a separate queue for English-speakers. “I thought I’d have to fill out a lot of paperwork and would hear back from them in a few days or weeks,” he recalls. In less than an hour, though, he was shaking hands with an army captain who hired him on the spot.

After the war, people’s spirits were lifted, Esam said. His fellow Iraqis could express opinions, go to cafés, talk politics, and publish newspapers and magazines. In September, Esam landed a commission to paint the first public mural in post-Saddam Iraq.  

But before he could paint anything, he had to rip down a portrait of the former leader. “I kept peeling back layers,” Esam said, shaking his head. “But each time I did, I discovered another portrait. It took me days before I got to the bottom.”

His thirteen-foot tall mural, described by one critic as “yellow, orange, and purple paint swirling around images of doves, traditional Baghdadi architecture, and the sun rising over a sky-blue mosque,” came to symbolize a crystalline break between past and present, despair and hope. He purposely avoided black paint in this piece because “we needed color, after all those years of suffering.” He named the mural “Resilience.”

However, as security deteriorated by early 2004, Esam was getting nervous. Unlike some translators, he chose not to wear a mask. “My face was well-known,” Esam says. At that point, he began thinking of coming to America.

A Connecticut art dealer, Peter Hastings Falk, read about Esam’s mural and took notice. “I had to find out who this guy was,” Falk recalls now. Hebegan emailing Esam about organizing an exhibit of Iraqi artists.

Esam applied for and was selected as an artist-in-residence at the Griffis Art Center, which he had learned about from Falk. In June 2005, Esam flew to JFK. He initially stayed with Steve Mumford, a New York artist who had worked in Iraq. Falk recalls first meeting Esam, who was carrying a traditional rug he had brought from Iraq as a gift for a friend. “Steve has a walk-up apartment, and we had to lug that rug up those flights of stairs. It weighed a ton.”

When asked if he had experienced any culture shock, Esam said no, but then apologized, sensing his answer was disappointing. “I knew all about Dunkin’ Donuts and Waffle House. I even had Starbucks,” he says, alluding to the time he spent on U.S. army bases in Iraq.    

Since coming to the U.S., he has visited many of the soldiers he worked with at their homes around the country. “We are real friends,” Esam says. “We’re not just polite to each other. When we call each other, it’s not a courtesy call. It’s to discuss real things.”

In his studio behind the Sapphire House, Esam discusses the practical difficulties of being an artist in Iraq. “During the embargo, I had to paint with whatever materials were available, mostly industrial oil paint. It wasn’t the best quality,” he says matter-of-factly. “Paint knives were hard to find, so I just started making my own, but even then, I used them sparingly.”

During the war, Esam was unable to buy oils or acrylics. After scouring his apartment for supplies, he noticed a box of crayons. So he heated a few and began applying the hot wax to a canvas. Pleasantly surprised by the results, he continued working until he produced a triptych, “Tears of Wax.” Falk later told Esam that the technique he employed, using molten wax, has a long history. Known as “encaustic painting” — the ancient technique was actually used by artists in what is present-day Iraq, among other places.

What stands out in Esam’s works is the swirling of color, conveying a sense of unease that runs through his repertoire. The images he employs form a discomfiting tableau: waiting vultures, floating coffins, faceless women, thrashing whales.

The dark mood is a stark reminder that the young artist’s lifetime spans the rule of Saddam Hussein. While Esam is adamant that he does not infuse politics into his art, he does not shy away from contemporary themes either. In one painting, he includes references to Iraq’s three distinct regions—marshes and reed homes for the south; minarets for the center; and mountains for the north. It is an attempt to stress that while differences exist, a national identity binds everyone.

Esam says the question he gets asked most often is whether conditions in Iraq are better or worse than portrayed by the media. Skirting the question, he prefers to talk about Iraqi culture—a topic he says is unfamiliar to most Americans. “It’s not surprising. For thirty years, we were pretty much cut off from everyone. And they were cut off from us. We didn’t have magazines, or satellite dishes, or Internet.”

The government no longer censors its artists, but limited exposure and security concerns make conditions tough, Esam says. The Internet has provided some relief. After the U.S. invasion, for instance, Esam sold several pieces to foreign clients on artvitae.com, a website for artists.

While Esam wants to return to Iraq, he has decided to stay in the U.S. as long as possible because he feels it is best for his career. At the same time, his decision to remain in the U.S. comes at a steep personal price. Esam says he greatly misses his family, all of whom remain in Iraq. Thinking about home, Esam sounds a bit homesick. “I miss just walking down the Tigris,” he says.

Esam has started building a new life. He has a girlfriend and travels to New York frequently to visit friends and museums. He likes New London and the people there, whom he says are “very friendly, kind of like Iraqis.” In July, Esam emailed me to let me know about an upcoming solo exhibition and talk he was giving at the University of Connecticut. He is also working on a memoir, which he hopes to get published.  

In an essay written when he was still in Iraq, Esam summarized his defiant spirit. “I have come to accept the daily electrical blackouts in Baghdad. On a good day, we would have one hour of electricity on and seven or more hours off. I have even come to accept the ever-present dangers of simply getting around Baghdad.” Concluding, he writes: “But I could not accept running out of pigments to create my art.”

Esam’s future, much like his country’s, is uncertain. If he has to return to Iraq, there will be much danger waiting and difficult conditions in which to work. But Iraqis, Esam says, are resilient. He has, after all, been through it before.

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