With increased freedom over the last eight years and a growing access to technology, Iraqi youth are finding new ways to express themselves. Whether it’s in classic forms like painting and sculpture or newer mediums like video, young Iraqis are finding their voices through art.
In fact, Iraqi youth are embracing artistic outlets. According to a New York Times article last week, “At least three new art colleges have opened in northern and southern Iraq in the past few years. Applications to Baghdad art schools have risen by 25 percent since 2008. Young artists are setting up studios in neighborhoods where militants once carried out kidnappings and executions.”
What some artists are finding, however, is that political and social elites don’t want to hear what their art has to say. Paintings portraying violence, grimness, or even the hassles of corruption are harder to place in galleries and rarely win awards. But contests draw a wide variety of themes and subject matter. A recent one saw paintings of “vivid cubist landscapes, desert vistas, abstract color fields and celebrations of women’s sexuality.”
Under the repressive Saddam regime, artists who shared their unique perspectives on sensitive topics would have been putting their lives in danger. Now they can explore and share ideas with their fellow Iraqis even if wealth and accolades are still hard to come by.
Earlier this year, the United States Institute for Peace found a similar thirst among young Iraqis for ways to express themselves and have their voices heard. Though they were disappointed their government and civil society leaders weren’t listening, Iraqi youth were still hopeful about the role they had to play in their country’s future.
To harness their eagerness, the USIP gave Iraqi youth the chance to film their own short reality shows. Young Iraqis competed against each other for top honors and the opportunity of a lifetime. What were young Iraqis so anxious to compete for? To be an “Ambassador of Peace.”
Working together in diverse teams, young Iraqis learned key skills they will need to build a lasting peace: citizenship, respect for diversity, civic action, and self-confidence.
The program touched more than just the youth who participated. Even young people who watched the videos produced by their peers learned the important lessons of peace. A USIP survey indicated that of the kids who watched an episode of the reality series, “52 percent of Iraqi youth indicated that similarities would be more effective in building peace.” Building bridges between communities so that they may learn what ties them together as well as what sets them apart will be crucial in a country where 50 percent of Iraqi youth say they don’t have a friend from a different religion or sect.