Iraqi artist Wijdan al-Majed transforms the concrete jungle of Baghdad into a colorful city with murals depicting well-known figures from the war-torn country and abroad.
Perched on scaffolding at a busy intersection, the 49-year-old artist and professor at Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts puts the finishing touches on a mural dedicated to famed Iraqi poet Muzzafar al-Nawab.
Peasant women in traditional dress adorn the background of the mural, commissioned by Baghdad Mayor Alaa Maan.
He launched the initiative nine months ago with the aim “to bring beauty to the city and move art to the streets to get rid of the gray and dusty colors” that hang over Baghdad.
Majed, an artist more accustomed to exhibiting her work in the cozy and thoughtful surroundings of galleries, first had help creating street art.
But she turned to work alone, undeterred by the “enormous challenges” she faces as a woman in a largely conservative, male-dominated society.
“Sometimes I work late at night,” said Majed, dressed in paint-splattered jeans and shoes.
“The street is scary at night, and it’s not easy for a woman to be out so late,” she said.
Motorists and passers-by often slow down or stop to observe the woman on her scaffolding, brush in hand and at work.
Disparaging comments are sometimes sent to him.
“I’m learning to live with them and ignore them,” she said.
“People have gotten used to seeing a woman paint. Iraqi society accepted me.
Many Iraqis are pleasantly surprised by the transformation of their capital.
“This is the most beautiful Muzaffar,” shouted a motorist as she passed Majed as she touched up the poet’s mural.
Dubbed the “revolutionary poet,” Muzaffar al-Nawab, who spent years in prison for writing about successive repressive regimes in Iraq, holds a special place in the hearts of many Iraqis.
At least 16 murals have been painted in Baghdad, including one dedicated to Jawad Salim, considered the father of modern Iraqi art and a famous sculptor, and another to the late world-renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.
German sociologist Max Weber and Catholic saint Mother Teresa are among the foreigners celebrated on new murals in Baghdad.
Maan, the mayor and architect by profession, chooses the subjects for Majed to paint in bright colors – a stark contrast to the rest of the city.
Baghdad’s infrastructure has been devastated by a 13-year international embargo against the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled him, and years of sectarian violence that culminated in the rise and fall of the Islamic State. group.
Maan acknowledges that much remains to be done to rehabilitate the city, which was once a beacon of Arab culture but now struggles, like most Iraqis, with corruption and mismanagement.
“The city is the first victim: any problem elsewhere in the country is reflected here,” Maan said.
“When unemployment skyrockets, you’ll see street vendors…and when the housing crisis hits, slums will pop up.”
Graffiti covers many buildings and facades in Baghdad, including political messages dating back to the bloody anti-government protests that rocked the country for months from late 2019.
The cables of the private generators, which are desperately needed to compensate for the chronic power cuts, add to the disfigurement of the capital.
For Majed, painting murals “brings joy” across the city of nine million people.
In the bustling neighborhood of Al-Sadriya, known for its popular market, a mural depicting two men selling watermelons has captured hearts.
“It’s a slice of Baghdad’s heritage,” said textile merchant Fadel Abu Ali, 63.
The mural is a reproduction of a work by the late artist Hafidh al-Droubi, who often depicts daily life in Baghdad.