Arts & Culture » Visual Art

The Home Front

An Iraqi transplant paints her homeland

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One of the most painful and intimate effects of war is how the experience affects different individuals. Every person who is touched by a war has a different response to the ordeal. Throughout history, artists have tried to replicate and respond to the experience of war. In the modern era, well-known impressions of war have ranged from Picasso's Guernica to Grosz' war casualties. But how do regular people respond to their own experiences, and how do they express themselves?

One local woman's response to her circumstances is on display through the month of March at the Flying M Coffee Shop. Samira Harnish is an Iraqi-American woman who has lived in the United States since 1978. She moved to Utah from her home in Baghdad with her ex-husband, who had a scholarship to study at Utah State University. She attended the university, too, studying civil engineering while also raising five children: three of her own and two nieces. She has never been back to Baghdad, although she has wanted to visit. "When Saddam rose to power, we started to believe that everything would be a disaster," she explains. "It would be too hard to go back."

Studying art was never an option for Harnish because it was not considered a viable way to make a living. She remembers her parents slapping her hands when they found her drawing. "They told me, 'that does not give you food,'" she recalls. Yet Harnish still drew. She recalls going up on the flat roofs of Baghdad and drawing by the light of the moon, "before I became a teenager." Drawing is something that she has been able to take with her, because, as she points out, "You just need a pen and paper. It's not like playing music, where you have to buy an instrument."

Her art has also followed her, as it turns out. Four years ago, she was contacted by a childhood friend, who told her that she kept a drawing of Harnish's that has reminded her friend of her for many years. Harnish had forgotten all about the drawing, which she made when she was 8 or 9 years old. It shows a woman caught in a spider web; she is trapped and unable to get free. The woman is surrounded by snakes, which are known "to bite and then hide, like bad people do." Harnish recalled how she had been able to express herself through art, and how it was possible, even at that young age, to comment on her surrounding society.

Two years ago, Harnish's husband Justin bought her an easel and paint for her birthday. He likes to write--both also work at Micron--and encouraged her to pursue her creative impulses while he pursued his own; now, when he writes, she paints. As her artist's statement explains, "I am not an artist, but I want to learn how to bring my sadness or happiness out through painting." She began painting by copying the work of her favorite painters, but giving her work its own individual touch by using different colors. Her very first painting, which is on display at the Flying M show, is a replica of a painting by Iraqi artist Hafidh Al-Drubi, Man Picking Dates. It reminds her of the "millions of date palms in Iraq," she says. "But the color is my color; I use purple, green." The work is also meaningful to Harnish because her mother used to describe her as a palm tree. "She told me, 'a palm tree is tall and strong. It will bend in the wind, but it will not break,'" says Harnish.

The paintings that address the war specifically were started at the end of last year. She felt the need to express her own feelings, feelings that have been "eating at my heart." The war, she says, seemed largely forgotten in the mainstream media, and she searched for information on the Internet. She began to paint from the images that she saw there, although she feels that some of the pictures were too harsh, and she didn't want to show such shocking portrayals. Still, the images that she saw there entered her dreams and affected her in a profound way. "They don't leave until I draw them," she explains.

In addition to her concern for her family, Harnish was confronted with all sorts of questions as the only Iraqi woman working at Micron. "I don't want to offend anyone," she explains. "I have feelings for every American soldier, and for their families." Her paintings became answers to all of the questions that she faced. "I wonder, if people could be in my shoes for five minutes, if they could tell me how I feel."

When Harnish realized that the third anniversary of the most recent war in Iraq was this month, she approached the Flying M with an idea to show her paintings and her accompanying explanatory essay. They immediately agreed. That was in January. She finished the three war paintings that hang in the show in the last month and a half. "They're still wet," she laughs.

Harnish's work shows her removal from the conflict. Two of them, American Soldier confronts Iraqi Gentleman and A Wall Between a Child and Soldier, show situations leading up to a potential confrontation rather than the encounter itself. She straddles the middle ground with her sympathies, explaining that everyone is scared: the innocent citizens of Iraq are afraid of the soldiers who have come to liberate them; the soldiers are afraid of the Iraqi people; all live in constant fear of suicide bombers. There is a language barrier and a cultural barrier, and the walls that separate the forces in the conflict are very real. As she sees it, all have been put in a bad situation.

The third war painting is a diptych showing Baghdad: Before and After. She describes exactly what it means to her in the explanatory caption. "First, the land of my birth during Saddam's American-backed reign shows the beauty of Mesopotamia, the fertile crescent, the land that sprouted the first civilization is in contrast to the devastation, pain, and death that faces the men, women, and children who share my heritage, language, and ancestry."

Harnish ends the essay that accompanies her show by stating that she wants "to present these pictures to family, deceased and alive in Baghdad, to let them know that I do suffer for each despair that befalls my war-torn home." She considers herself both an Iraqi and an American, and yearns to be able to visit her sisters and their children in Iraq, as well as to show her own children the land of her birth. Until such a time, she must observe from a distance, seeking out information wherever she can, and worrying for her family, friends, and the soldiers who are caught in the midst of this war.

"I wish for peace, for a miracle," says Harnish. She pauses for only a second before admitting, "but I don't think it will happen."

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