Sinbad The Artist
issue 316 - September 1999
Sensual, strong, and determined, Mohamed Ghani is one of Iraq’s most famous living sculptors.
You can recognise Mohamed Ghani’s studio immediately among all the other houses in this quiet residential street. It has a bluebell-blue steel door, for one thing. And the handles are carved in burnished metal.
He opens the door in a wave of energy that sweeps us into a light high-ceilinged studio. The first thing to greet our eyes is a huge plaster model of Jesus Christ on a wooden scaffold. The body hangs painfully from its nails. Then we begin to take in the rest; works large and small in plaster, wood, clay and bronze, copper. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ he beams as his eyes bore intensely into ours, refusing to release us.
Mohamed Ghani never stops talking. His English is heavily accented, but its musical lilt is not of the Arab world. As he talks, he uses his hands to illustrate or to drive home a crucial point. He bursts into fits of merry laughter, his teeth shining in his bronzed face while his white curly hair springs wildly from his head.
Next he whisks us over to one side of the room to appreciate his latest idea – a small model of a fountain based on Aladdin’s lamp. Then to Sinbad the sailor, balanced on two boats, swaying as the river moves. We crack a joke about the similarity between Sinbad and Mohamed Ghani, both perpetually on the move, and he laughs, throwing back his head and then becoming serious. ‘Yes, I am Sinbad, but not just because I spent seven years in Italy. We are all Sinbad, all on our own journeys, searching, searching...’
Italy explains the accent, the gestures (he speaks fluent Italian), but the exuberance and the twinkle in his eye are all his own.
‘I like working with these Iraqi legends because they all fire the imagination.’ And he shows us a tiny bronze flying carpet with the two lovers, Aladdin and Jasmine, setting out on their own journey. ‘There is a huge version of this at the new Saddam International airport’. He grins wryly. ‘So of course no-one sees it now. The airport is closed under sanctions, so my carpet can fly, but the planes can’t.’
‘You see’ – and now he leans forward to make sure we understand – ‘the Iraqi people love sculpture, and sculptors. People come to me and give flowers and gifts. Normally, in Islam you are not allowed to make representations of people, but here in Iraq you see sculpture everywhere. ‘And he whispers conspiratorially, leaning towards us: ‘We are not supposed to drink alcohol either, but you know, everyone likes a little beer!’
We ask him about the huge Jesus, and the series of 14 large stone murals that represent the stations of the Cross. He hurries us over to that side of the room.
‘This is interesting. I am not a Christian, I am not even religious, but I was asked by the Vatican to do this for the Assumption church in Baghdad. You know, the strange thing was that the day I started this work was the day the bombing began in 1991. It was the start of the Gulf War. The studio shook, the windows cracked – you see, some are still cracked – and I cried. I cried for my city which was being bombed and I cried for Jesus who was going to his death. But I didn’t stop carving. It took me two years and now these hang in the church. I don’t give up easily.’
Next to the panels I notice five grey square blocks with the days of the week carved on them in English. Underneath each is a small squatting figure, bent and dwarfed by the weight of the block. ‘These blocks? They are what I feel about the embargo. You see, I went to the Saddam Hospital and I saw all these women bringing in their sick and hungry children and I felt very sad. I felt their heaviness, their sorrow, so I went home and carved these pieces; one for each day of the week.’
I ask why he wrote the days in English rather than Arabic. His answer comes swiftly: ‘Because I want to show people outside Iraq who can read English what is happening here. I am asked to lecture all over the world because my sculptures are on display in many different countries – from Paris to Washington, Moscow to Toronto. I tell people that we are not just a country of tents and camels. We have a civilization that goes back thousands of years. Culture is in our veins, in our blood’. And he strokes his forearms, veins standing out. Then he looks up and wags his finger. ‘I am an artist. I am not political. I am simply making what I feel here, inside’ and he thumps his fist on his heart. Then he leans forward. ‘I make what I want to make, not what I am told to make.’
‘The embargo has made life very difficult. In the Academy of Fine Arts there are no paints, no brushes, no canvases. It is hard for young artists. Even I used to carve wood, usually teak from India. Now I can’t get this any more, so I use wood that I can salvage from old houses, anything at all.’
His sigh is deep as he examines us from under those bushy brows. ‘Sometimes I think the US wants to kill everything in Iraq. But you can tell them that they will not succeed. They will not kill Iraqi people, and they will not kill Mohamed Ghani.’ Then his stern glare dissolves into peals of laughter.
A few days later, when we visit an exhibition of his work in the Saddam Art Gallery, we see the full extent of his talent; the curves and circles, the strong lines and haunting expressions of both figures and his more abstract work. But this museum, like all the others in Iraq, is normally closed. It was bombed in 1993 when the famous artist Laila Al Attar was killed. Some precious works of art were damaged. Now the rest lie unseen, collecting layers of dust in the summer sunshine.