Mona Morei writes for nina-iraq.com
Interview by: Sana Bekki
“Baghdad, a paradise on earth…. Oh, I miss it so much. I keep counting hours to go back to paradise.” I overheard this statement in Amman last week. A woman whose hometown was obviously Baghdad was deep in conversation with another lady. The description of this ‘city of her heart’ was if she was drawing a painting of a beautiful lady. Her words had impact on my soul, stirring up my own feelings of longing. My natural curiosity, honed by many years as a writer and journalist, meant I not only had to find out more, I also had to capture her ‘ painting’ – both of words and pictures, to share in Nina. It turns out that the speaker was Mona Marei. a leading Iraqi artist who also heads of the Fine Art Department at the Fine Art Institute. It is no wonder that she engendered such a reaction in me. Indeed, Mona has participated in many forums in order to show the world the beauty of Baghdad, the Capital of Culture, in her paintings. She came to Jordan, invited by the Iraqi Business Council, to organize her exhibition which expresses her passion and pride of her country, and showcases her efforts to create a generation of Iraqi Artists. Mona shares her story with us… Mona’s weapon of choice has been her paintbrush, her passion for Iraq her canvas. “I started my journey as a child. I dreamed of becoming a famous artist who draws for the world to see her paintings. I used to use the walls as a huge space to paint. Unlike my peers, I used to draw beautiful and well-organized paintings for my family and everyone to see. A driver for me was always the thought that I would be able to studyat the Institute of Fine Art. Funnily enough an early stumbling block was that I was an excellent academic student. The standard of my studeis qualified me to automatically go down an academic path and that’s what my parents chose for me to do. I knew my dream was to join Institute of Fine Art, not down the Academic route so I went on a hunger strike and luckily I got my own way! I joined the institute at 13. I felt I owned the whole world that day. Fortunately, I joined the institute during its golden era and was educated by prominent Iraqi artists and professors; such as Salman Al-Abbas, Suheil Al-Hindawi, Muheen Al-Sarraf, Amin Abbas, Saa’d Al Taa’i and many others.” Mona continues with her story. “I participated in the first exhibition held at the Art Center back then (the Ministry of Culture now). It was a joint exhibition for prominent Iraqi artists. My participation at the exhibition, as a young student along with such prominent professors, caused some raised eyebrows. However, not for long… When my works were selected by the organizing committee no one could argue with my right to be there. I graduated from the Institute first in my class and was so able to continue my education at the College of Fine Art. I was so lucky – as I was taught I was taught by prominent Iraqi artists and professors; such as Waleed Shait, Husam Abdelmuhsen, Nizar Al-Hindawi, Muhammad Sabri and others. I was also close to the great Fa’eq Hasan who used to visit the college constantly. For me as my body of work grew, I realized increasingly that it is important on so many levels.” “When I finished my degree I was asked by the Dean to manage the newly established hall at the Art College, which opened doors for me to meet and connect with prominent artists. I also worked as an art teacher at the Fine Art Institute for Boys in Al-Mansour – Baghdad.” Even art and artistic establishments were not immune from political turmoil though and for Mona art turned into an important human message. “Due to the difficult circumstances the country was going through in the 1990s, young people became less interested in education, especially art. I’ve worked very hard to bring the institute back to its previous state of growth and opportunity. As a friend and mentor my students and I have painted, worked and organized many exhibitions together. This has given them confidence and a sense of pride of their achievements. Ultimately art is an important career path and I am so pleased I have helped many young people transition into real artists, albeit at the beginning their journey towards fame. I continued with this mission as a Department Head at the Fine Art College. My vision is to establish a conscious cultural and artistic atmosphere whereby students realize that art is a message that we need to deliver. It is a message of humanity, from one human to another – away from politics, radicalism and discrimination.” Mona goes on to tell us how paintings telling a story of a nation. “In 2001, I had my first individual experience holding my first personal exhibition at the Ministry of Education entitled “Abstract X Abstract”. I did stop participating in exhibits, due to the events happening in Iraq in 2003 for some time, but I continued painting on a personal level. In this time in Iraq was dominated by bloodshed, sectarianism and wars. From 2003 and the lean years that followed, painting became a compensation of the sorrow inside me. As soon as the situation got even slightly better I started participating in public life again. A personal highlight was being invited by the Ministry of Culture, under the patronage of Baghdad the Capital of Culture, to hold an exhibition. This was a really powerful experience, outshining everything that had gone before. I sought to do Baghdad’s beauty justice in my paintings, despite the destruction. I was trying to depict Baghdad from a different perspective. My exhibition was therefore aptly titled “Baghdadi Smiles”. The experience proved to be a huge success. I showed Baghdad as it was to me – God’s paradise on earth. Baghdad is the cradle of civilization, with a history that is so wide and deep it can be unfathomable.
Mona and Nina
Then, in 2013 I returned to my real style which is the expressive abstract art. I produced another personal exhibit entitled “Mysteries”. This time my paintings depicted the suffering of my country. I used colors and stories, so each painting was able to tell a story of my nation. The difficult situations Iraq is faced with have not stopped me from continuing my journey. I believe that by creating opportunities for participation and showing the beautiful images of my country a step-change can be created. My travels have taken me to opening the Iraq Belgium Centre and a fourth exhibition entitled “Contrasting Similarities. Thanks to the Iraq Business Council In Jordan my fifth and most recent exhibition, entitled “Another Shadow”, took place in Amman-Jordan September 2014. Mona returned to Baghdad the next day as she missed her ‘paradise’. Thanks to a bit of eavesdropping I have been inspired to remember also. All I can say is that sometimes it really does pay off! To view Paintings of Artist Mona Marei please click here.