Art and Artists Crossing Borders: Untold Stories of the First Iraqi Art Exhibition in the USSR
During recent decades, interest in different facets of contemporary Arab art has significantly increased. Although recent developments have played a key role in bringing Arab art into wider focus, gaps remain in scholarly discussions, such as the subject of Arab art and artists in the Soviet Union—a cultural transfer and migration of ideas across time and space. This article discusses the first Iraqi modern art exhibition in the USSR, in 1959. It was organized and carried out within the framework of the 1959 bilateral agreement signed between Iraq and the Soviet Union promoting mutual understanding and cultural exchange. More than 200 artworks were exhibited in Moscow, Baku, and Odessa for nearly three months. The exhibition’s paintings, graphics, and sculptures represented both figurative and abstract art schools. Unintentionally, the show triggered heated debates: cross-regional conversations erupted not only in the official media but also on the pages of the guest books of its venues, Moscow’s State Museum of Oriental Art and the Azerbaijan National Museum of Art in Baku. By looking at the debates around the exhibition content, this article seeks to shed light on how such an exhibition was made possible and how it was perceived in the USSR in the context of the inculcated ideology of socialist realism. What was the purpose of this exhibition and who were the cultural agents behind its organization? What was the role of official cultural players in the USSR in selecting the works and promoting the exhibition? How was the Iraqi exhibition received by the Soviet public? What was the reaction of the official press? How did the ideology of socialist realism affect people’s perception of Iraqi modern art? For insights into the history of the exhibition planning and setup, as well as the debates around the show, I relied mostly on previously unpublished archival material from the Ministry of Culture of the USSR and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, as well as other archival material from the Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts and the State Archive of the Russian Federation. Additional information was obtained from major collections of press clippings from Soviet newspapers, journals, and magazines from the 1950s and ’60s.