Nada Shabout is an art history professor at the University of North Texas, and a leading authority on modern Arab art — in fact, she’s the author of the book, Modern Arab Art. She is also the director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute at UNT. Currently, the institute is showing Open Shutters Iraq, an exhibition of photos and essays by Iraqi women about their changed lives after the military invasion of 2003. It’s running through May 21 at UNT on the Square, the storefront gallery at 109 N. Elm St. on Denton’s Courthouse Square.
We talked to her about how Open Shutters came to be — Iraqi women were trained in photography in a Damascus workshop to document their own stories as opposed to the media’s concentration on politics, religion and war. Shabout also discusses her own major, ongoing project: trying to catalog the 8,000 artworks plundered from the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad.
These are not the antiquities looted from the National Museum, which got all the attention. Contemporary, secular, Arabic art is almost completely unknown in much of the West, which is an additional reason the burning and looting of Baghdad’s Modern Art Museum was such a loss. Recovering the works, Shabout says, may well be hopeless. But even if recovery is possible, it can only come through documentation — through the receipts, bills of sale, the provenance that any work needs for reputable dealers, museums and, especially, for scholars who want to trace a particular artist’s achievements, his influences.
The artists affected include some of Iraq’s most accomplished figures, including Jawad Salim, Dia Azzawi and Suad al-Atttar.