BAGHDAD (REUTERS).- A lull in violence has sparked a timid renaissance in Iraqi art after years of dictatorship and bloodshed restricted artistic freedoms.
In a park by the Tigris, a dozen sculptors chip away at marble to carve their vision of Iraqi resilience -- one shows a pregnant woman balancing a water bucket on her head, another features a female bird protecting eggs under her wings.
None of it is groundbreaking in a nation historians consider the cradle of civilization. But after decades as a propaganda vehicle for Saddam Hussein followed by years of living in fear of religious militia after the 2003 U.S-led invasion, the artists are content to simply be allowed to pursue their craft.
"In the past, sculpture and carving were used to serve the political regime but today the sculptor's imagination has been unleashed," said Nasir al-Samarrai, hammering away as part of a project by Baghdad city authorities to promote art.
The outdoor workshop by the river where Samarrai labors is among signs of a timid revival in Baghdad's once flourishing arts scene, which enjoyed its golden era after the 8th century under the Abbasid caliphate. Iraqi art was vibrant in the 20th century until Saddam and his wars began to take their toll.
"Saddam wanted to copy the Assyrian kings to make himself and his works immortal and so he resorted to art for propaganda purposes," said Saad al-Basri, sculpture professor at Baghdad's Fine Art Academy. "After the fall of the regime, there was a new setback to art since fundamentalism was on the rise and some Islamists consider sculpture a taboo."
Artists still struggle because patronage by the elite has dried up and some fear the rise of Shi'ite Muslim dominance in Iraqi life could lead to a period of religious conservatism.
But a fall in attacks by insurgents and militants over the past 18 months has allowed some artists who fled to return and prompted others to transfer their inner torment onto canvas.
LIFE AND DEATH
In painter Qasim Sabti's dusty Baghdad gallery, splotches of paint, crayon markings and newspaper strips show explosions, bewildered children, and fruitless date palm trees in collages by Iraqi artists Yosra al-Ebadi and Sattar Darweesh.
"There is a new generation of artists that has grown up during this period of difficulties," says Sabti, a prominent painter whose works have been shown in Tokyo and New York.
"Many artists have changed their styles to reflect their tragic experiences. Tragedy lives on inside Iraqi art. It shows two things side by side -- life and death."
Sabti himself stumbled upon a new style when he saw books strewn around after a library looting in the days just after the invasion. He used the cardboard book covers and remnants of pages to create stiff, brightly-hued rectangular pieces of art.
"This is the kind of art that happens suddenly," he said.
In his gallery's shady terrace, men sip sweet black tea amid buzzing flies, flip through newspapers and discuss art, adding to growing signs of life in the country's culture scene that was all but killed off by post-invasion bloodshed.
Iraq's national museum reopened in February and a troupe of stand-up comedians began performing last month in Baghdad's national theater -- both for the first time since the invasion.
Iraq's government says it has seen an uptick in art exhibits and cultural events, as it tries to play them up as a sign of greater stability ahead of a general election in January.
Even so, artists like Sabti remain skeptical about how far the new interest can go without diplomats and wealthy Iraqis to buy art. He says his book cover art sells for as much as $2,800 in New York but goes begging for $500 in Baghdad.
"Now I am free to do my art, but there is no money to follow these dreams," he said, nostalgic for the pre-invasion days when Saddam's officials baffled by his abstract art left him alone. A childhood limp allowed him to avoid being drafted for war.
Only three of more than 20 art galleries in Baghdad before the invasion are open today, he said. The Iraqi artists' union has about 5,000 members, but some of its best talent is abroad.
However, Sabti has hope for Iraqi art.
"We are Muslims, but we don't live in caves," he said. "We are the people of Babylon. It's in our genes."
(Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Michael Christie and Paul Casciato)