IRAQ ART REVIEW
Around 80 per cent of Iraq’s artists now live elsewhere but many are still driven to explore events in their former homeland, as is shown in Creativity vs Destruction, a group exhibition of Iraqi art in Edinburgh, part of the Reel Iraq Festival. A review in the Scotsman explains that although the title pits creativity against destruction, the work displayed suggests a more subtle relationship between the two.
Here is an extract from the review:
Hanaa Mal Allah, who is regarded as one of Iraq’s foremost female painters, left Baghdad in 2006 under the Scholars at Risk Scheme which helps academics whose life or work is threatened in their home country. Her two large canvases, from a series called Vivid Ruins, are creative works born of destruction – canvas which has been burned, cut, patched together and pierced with threads and twigs. Hung in the middle of the Roxy’s subdued, ecclesiastical space, they are both painful and beautiful.
In a small, darkened side chapel, she presents three smaller works, including a book in which the pages, though similarly damaged, show fragments of Arabic writing and patterns. They speak of the way a culture is destroyed by the looting of its artefacts and wrecking of its sites; how its sense of itself is reduced to fragments. This is complex, mature work, elegiac rather than angry – all the more remarkable for being achieved in the midst of ongoing destruction.
Wafaa Bilal takes a more confrontational approach. Arrested and tortured for his political artwork under Saddam Hussein, he now lives in the United States. He lost his father and brother in the most recent war.
In Domestic Tension: Shoot an Iraqi, an interactive performance work, Bilal lived in isolation for 31 days in a Chicago gallery where visitors – or viewers online via a 24-hour webcam and automatic setup – could operate a paintball machine to fire at him at any time. The response was immense, and polarising. More than 60,000 shots were fired, while a group of self-appointed “protectors” worked shifts online to point the gun away from him.
The project received overwhelming worldwide attention, garnering the praise of the Chicago Tribune, which called it “one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time,” and Newsweek’s assessment “breathtaking.” It spawned provocative online debates and ultimately, Bilal was awarded the Chicago Tribune’s Artist of the Year Award.
In the film shown here, he speaks matter-of-factly about that experience while dodging a barrage of paintballs behind a plastic shield. The work captures something of the sense of living under fire, while showing that interactive art, when it is done well, can do what good art has always done: make us understand something important in a new way.
Sama Alshaibi, an Iraqi-Palestinian artist who is now a naturalised American, uses her work to explore the complex issues which arise from her nationality. Her film Diatribes, which intersperses her own dialogue with US broadcasts from the time of the bombing of Baghdad, feels raw and unresolved – understandably so.
Her photographs use more oblique means. In her Birthright series, which focuses on Palestine, and Between Two Rivers, about Iraq, she uses her own body as a symbol of a country subject to damage.
Contemporary art is sometimes described as self-indulgent, but the pressure of the political circumstances give the works in this show an urgency and vitality. Yet it’s wrong to expect artists to produce answers; these are individual responses, each is the product of the artist’s own experience and concerns.
- Hanaa Mal Allah images and bio at 2009 solo show Mosaic Rooms
- International Network for Contemporary Iraqi Artists
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