Iraqi artist Wijdan al-Majed is transforming Baghdad’s concrete jungle into a color-filled city with murals depicting well-known figures from the country and abroad.
Perched on a scaffold at a busy intersection, the 49-year-old artist and instructor at the Baghdad College of Fine Arts is adding final touches to a mural dedicated to celebrated 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 in a bid 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.
Al-Majed, an artist more accustomed to exhibiting her work in galleries, at first had helpers to create the street art, but she has turned to working alone, undaunted by the “huge challenges” she faces as a woman in a largely conservative, male-dominated society.
“Sometimes I work late into the night,” said al-Majed, wearing jeans and shoes splattered with paint.
“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 watch the woman on her scaffold, paintbrush in hand and hard at work.
Disparaging comments are sometimes fired her way.
“I learn to live with it and ignore them,” she said. “People have become used to seeing a woman paint — Iraqi society has accepted me.”
Many Iraqis are happily surprised by the transformation of their capital.
“This is the most beautiful Muzaffar,” a motorist shouted as he drove past al-Majed while she touched up the poet’s mural.
Nicknamed 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 across Baghdad, with one devoted to Jawad Salim, considered the father of Iraqi modern art and a celebrated sculptor, and another to the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.
German sociologist Max Weber and Catholic saint Mother Teresa are among the foreigners celebrated on Baghdad’s new murals.
Maan, the mayor and an architect by profession, chooses the subjects that al-Majed paints in vivid colors — a jarring contrast with the rest of the city.
For al-Majed, painting murals “brings joy” across the city of 9 million people.
In the teeming al-Sadriya neighborhood, known for its popular market, a mural depicting two men selling watermelons has won hearts.
“This is a slice of Baghdad’s heritage,” 63-year-old textile merchant Fadel Abu Ali said.
The mural is a reproduction of a work by late artist Hafidh al-Droubi, who often portrayed Baghdad daily life.
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