Alumna Seeks to Save Iraqi Art

For Dr. Nada Shabout, the fight to recover Iraq’s lost treasure continues.

Dr. Nada Shabout (UNT)

Since 2003, the art history professor at the University of North Texas and UT Arlington alumna has embarked on a mission to collect information on the lost works of Iraq through intensive research and interviews with artists, museum personnel, and art gallery owners. For Shabout, the importance of the appreciation of modern Iraqi art and that of other countries in the Middle East is long overdue.

“As we move towards a global understanding of contemporary art, it is more imperative to look back at modernity in that same view,” she said. “Modernization was a global moment, and acknowledging the contributions of the non-west will help enrich our understanding of its formation.”

During the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2003, the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art was left unprotected and more than 3,000 of the nearly 8,000 paintings, prints and sculptures on hand were looted or destroyed. In her mission, Shabout has had to start from scratch and create a database called the Modern Art Iraq Archive. Through the website, artiraq.org/maia, Shabout hopes to raise public awareness and encourage interested individuals to help document the museum’s original and lost holdings by making the works available as an open access database.

Her passion about saving and cataloguing Iraqi art spills into the classroom. Shabout is planning to take students to Arab countries to teach modern and contemporary Arab art, as well as hopefully organizing some exchange opportunities. In 2010, she took a graduate student to assist in her work at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. A few years ago Shabout and a colleague took several students to Spain to study the arts of Islamic Spain. According to Shabout, the trip to Spain “was a marvelous experience” for students and both professors.

Her graduate students have joined her search and are volunteering to assist in her mission. Tiffany Floyd, who is currently working on her master’s in Art History at UNT with focus on one of the Iraqi arts included in MAIA, has been instrumental in assisting with compiling the descriptive text of the art works. Saleem al-Bahlooly, a PhD student at the University of California-Berkeley, has served as the main project assistant, locating and scanning original resources.

While the site has been welcomed by her peers, Shabout hopes to continue adding more collections of images and digitized text.

“We are currently pursuing further funding to locate, photograph and upload documentation of private collections of Iraqi art,” she said. “Our gathering of data for the works we have on the site continues.”

She hopes to have all text on the site in both English and Arabic. To date, the funding received for the project is from the American Research Institute in Iraq (TAARII) which helped launch the website and aided to gather initial documents. She has also received a National Endowment for the Humanities-Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant.

For Shabout, her greatest challenge is obtaining the correct information on the Iraqi art.

“The main problem is misinformation in the view of lack of archives,” she said. “So I continuously receive conflicting messages from different people about which works on the site are misidentified, not part of the museum’s collection, or are fake. The information is at time impossible to verify and in the least requires much follow-up and cross referencing.”

But despite the adversity Shabout said she will continue with her passion for art and art history.

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[Written by Karla Cano, College of Liberal Arts]

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