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Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 6.2 (2006) 220-235

Dissidence, Creativity, and Embargo Art in Nuha Al-Radi's Baghdad Diaries
Brinda Mehta

For almost a full decade, an inhuman campaign of sanctions—the most complete ever in recorded history—has destroyed Iraq as a modern state, decimated its people, and ruined its agriculture, its educational and health care systems, as well as its entire infrastructure. All this has been done by the United States and United Kingdom, misusing United Nations resolutions against innocent civilians.

——Edward Saïd

The current state of geopolitical anomie unleashed by the forces of globalization and Western capitalism has created a new world disorder in which war is the preferred agenda of a masculinist elite to advance the interest of a petrol-fueled U.S. and European hegemony. As the war in Iraq illustrates, the male culture of violence formulates the language of international diplomacy that disfavors negotiation and open-ended dialogue by thwarting creative solutions to accommodate peace and conflict resolution.

Within this context, the Iraqi-born artist and writer Nuha Al-Radi made a critical intervention into the male-centered ethic of nonarbitration and military imposition that has made Iraq a country under siege, a country destroyed internally and externally by a former male dictatorship and Western imperialism. She offers a woman-centered perspective on war, occupation, twelve years of economic sanctions, and culturally devised strategies of survival through the mediums of politically inspired paintings, sculpture, essays, and her Baghdad Diaries—an eyewitness account of the terror and daily destruction that the war has inflicted on defenseless citizens. [End Page 220]

Born in Baghdad in 1941, Al-Radi, the daughter of a former Iraqi ambassador to India and Iran, belonged to a prominent land-owning aristocratic family that lived in Suleikh, one of the more fashionable areas of Baghdad. She spent much of her life abroad and received her training at the Byamshaw School of Art and Chelsea Pottery in London. After teaching briefly at the American University in Beirut in the 1960s, she returned to Baghdad at the onset of the 1991 Gulf War to be close to her mother and sister. Al-Radi lived in political exile in Lebanon until her untimely death in August 2004 from leukemia. Her work represents the last will and testament of an Iraqi woman torn between her love for a beloved country, the ambivalence of exile in Beirut, and her opposition to the diplomatic impunity of the U.S.-led coalition forces, who, she concluded, were "worried about security, not for the poor Iraqis, but for themselves" (2003b, 243).

I am in a frenzy of artistic activity and feel more cheerful. I hope it continues.


Al-Radi concretizes an ethos of peace in her art through a creative art for survival esthetics. The frenzy to survive is sublimated into a creative frenzy of expression that reveals the functional and cathartic power of art to symbolize discontent and resistance. The survival of the creative spirit despite political oppression is a source of joyful celebration for the artist whose work takes on a specifically political dimension to reflect the realities of occupation in a nonviolent way. By politicizing her art to represent the different phases of war and sanctions, Al-Radi demonstrates the unique capability of creating life from destroyed remains to provide visual documentation of the ongoing subjugation of her people.

Each phase of artistic production mirrors a particular stage in Iraqi political history, ranging from embargo art to environmentally sensitive recycled sculptures. The humanizing aspect of testimonial art goes beyond the individual to valorize an entire community by stressing the importance of communal expression in which the creative "I" inserts itself into a larger community's range of experience. As the diary indicates: "I will call this exhibition 'Embargo Art.' All the sculptures, whole families of people made of stone and car parts—busted exhausts and silencers that I collected when I went to mend my silencer. . . . The heads are painted stones...


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pp. 220-235
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