Iraqi pottery craftsmen fear that their ancient craft will disappear, due to importation of alternative goods, even though this art is now picked up in academia.
Hussein Shaalan feels nostalgic for the 1990s, when international sanctions against Iraq following the country’s annexation of Kuwait made his pottery business soar. “The 1990s were the last years when this craft was prosperous because imports [which competed with local products] were rare,” the 60-year-old potter from Hillah city in Babil governorate told Al-Monitor.
Today, Shaalan can no longer rely on pottery to make a living as he has done the last 35 years. Industrial development and imported goods now offer people plastic and metal alternatives to the clay pots that Iraqis traditionally used as table and kitchenware.
“There is no more daily use for clay pots. It is an old craft taught by families from one generation to the next, but today there is only one workshop left in the entire city,” he said. “We are merely resisting the inevitable end that gets closer day by day.”
Shaalan looks back at his youth when “every city in Iraq had dozens of pottery workshops where clay pots, jugs, bowls, jars for water and pickled products, cylinders to preserve water and large containers were carefully crafted — all by hand.”
Nidal Moussa Jaffar, a technical expert at the Ministry of Industry and Minerals specialized in folkloric production, told Al-Monitor, “Pottery-makers had an important social and economic role in the past decades. They used to earn a large income,” he said. “Families practicing this profession were called ‘kawaz’ — many families with this last name can be found in Iraq today. Pottery familiescarried out this tradition for generations.”
The Iraqi potters used a mix of red sand that they gathered from the river banks and integrated it into the clay. Then they shaped the clay into different forms, sometimes using a wheel. The pots were usually left in the shade to dry, but later, once the pottery shops became part of industrial areas, a kiln was used.
“Today pottery is no longer a craft practiced by artisans, but an art practiced in academia,” Iraqi artist Shubayb al-Medhati told Al-Monitor. “Pottery and ceramics have become an art for the elites. Clay and ceramics is shaped at academies, art schools and chic homes; the works are displayed in exhibitions, museums, malls and antique shops.”
Medhati, who works at the Iraqi National Library and Archive, said that Iraqi pottery heritage will continue to be a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. “Many famous Iraqi artists like Faeq Hassan and Jawad Saleem have been influenced by traditional pottery and they produced ceramics. The influence of pottery is noticeable in their works.”
Secretary of the Iraqi Plastic Artists Society Qassim Hamza told Al-Monitor, “Working with clay used to be important in these lands. Assyrians and Sumerians engraved their codes on tablets and cylinder seals. Each person had a seal on which he would engrave his property.” Some of the cylinder seals can be seen in the current collection of the National Museum of Iraq.
Ali Khalid Abbas, head of the ceramics department at the Institute of Applied Arts at the University of Baghdad, told Al-Monitor that many of the ceramics schools suffer from lack of funds. “The first institute for teaching pottery and ceramics was established in Iraq in the early 1940s. Yet the attention given to this art has decreased because of the bad security situation, the wars that Iraq has gone through and the unstable economy,” he said, calling for economic incentives for the sector.
Similarly, Adnan Saddam, head of the Baghdad-based Institute for Folk Art and Craft, told Al-Monitor, “The craft of pottery is going through a crisis. What is required today is reviving this industry through the support of workshops and projects. We must strive to prevent the disappearance of this folkloric and popular craft.”
Ali Hussein al-Mahmoud al-Assadi, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Basrah, is more optimistic. He told Al-Monitor, “The art of pottery will not die because the number of artists specializing in this craft is on the rise.”
Hamza also thinks that there is cause for optimism. “A pottery and ceramics exhibition was organized this year in Baghdad and 63 artists presented 150 works of international caliber,” he said, adding that most art academies in Iraq still teach the craft of pottery and ceramics, along with other art forms.