Art Radar interviews Rijin Sahakian on the functions of Echo, or Sada in Arabic, a non-profit organisation formed in 2010 to support the growth of contemporary visual art in Iraq and its diaspora. Discover how Echo is dealing with the social challenges created by war and isolation.

Echo for contemporary Iraqi art (Sada) website.

Click here to visit the Echo website.

Echo [Sada] was founded in 2010 by Rijin Sahakian to support artistic practices and preserve Iraqi art. In 2011, Echo launched their website and their live-stream workshop in Baghdad. Through a series of events, including a Christie’s benefit auction in Dubai in October, and programmes at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011, the Echo is swiftly gaining the attention it needs to fund and develop an ambitious multi-faceted organisation. Workshops are already under way, aimed at educating Iraqi artists and connecting them to the international art world, an online database is planned that will record Iraqi art, and a variety of activities have been organised which are aimed both at creating opportunities for their artists to partake in international residency programmes and at promoting Iraqi art around the world.

In the interview below, Sahakian discusses the state of Iraqi contemporary art, the ideas and motivations behind Echo and the organisation’s programmes and goals. Read on to find out more.

Rijin Sahakian. Image courtesy of Echo for contemporary Iraqi art. © Echo.

Can you explain how Echo developed from an idea into the organisation that it is today? Can you name the key challenge/s that Iraqi contemporary art and artists face today and explain how Echo is addressing these challenges?

One of the main motivations for founding Sada is that there seemed to be a significant absence in directed, independent support for arts and cultural projects in Iraq. Because of the multi-faceted needs that lie within the context of Iraqi arts today, we have developed these interlinking strategies of education, advocacy, research, preservation, and of course the support and presentation of works and practices. We are basically trying to provide a system of support within a fragile and fragmented field.

If we look at the arts as a kind of recorded history through individual expressions, you begin to realise the extent of the losses taking place that have serious ramifications for not only a shared and dynamic history produced by individuals, but also how the potential contributions of these expressions are being erased and suppressed as a result of the mechanism of war and ongoing conflict. … So you have a situation where critical works and materials have been destroyed, looted and taken out of the country (or not properly maintained within the country), and at the same time a very rich and influential legacy of work and a currently active artistic and cultural field…. It is also a time where possibilities for expression and preservation … have been highly compromised, but hold great potential [if they are] given the chance to be realised.

So, I think the purpose of a geographically or nationally focused organisation in this case is … to take into consideration specific needs and current circumstances in order to effectively … address how work is produced or enabled for long-term investment, research and support … [in] an environment that can foster artistic and cultural work – education opportunities, production funds, exhibition venues, exchange and access to materials – whether it is a photographic collection, historical record or art journal.

According to an article in The National, Echo’s virtual eight-month workshop held in Baghdad started on 3 November 2011. Tell us a little more about this project.

The launch of our arts workshops in Baghdad has been a very exciting start to our education program. It was, and is, a very experimental program, and so we are learning from it as well. It was born out of the need to find a solution to the question of how to provide workshops in new arts practices to students in Baghdad – who do not have access to this kind of work or training and who have been, and remain, extremely isolated – at a time when it is extremely difficult for artists to go to Baghdad to conduct this kind of program. Fortunately, we live in a time where technology can work to facilitate the idea of ‘transporting’ [teachers] to students. We began to work on this concept of ‘distance teaching’, [in which] teaching artists could conduct lectures from any point on the globe and be beamed into Baghdad, where students would be assembled in a physical classroom. I wanted to take the concept of online learning but make it more engaged, … as close to an interactive classroom setting as possible. With the use of Skype and interactive software designed specifically for this purpose, it seemed that we had a start.

How is the workshop structured?

I went to Baghdad several times this past spring and fall and worked with the film center, which was incredibly supportive of the project. We agreed on the space, provided the equipment and identified a young documentary filmmaker, Mohaned Heal, to serve as the classroom facilitator. Lectures would be conducted live via Skype with the teaching artists projected on a large wall in the classroom. Students could ask questions and engage in conversation with the teachers in real time, and the software would enable videos, images of works and texts to be seamlessly presented and downloaded by students. It was important that the workshops be conducted in Arabic, since students were not fluent in English and we wanted to enable as much communication as possible without translation. We also wanted to start the first year of the program with artists from Iraq, as they were most aware of the context and challenges these students faced. Again, we were very fortunate to have an exceptionally talented and generous group of artists nearly unanimously agree to come on board this inaugural project.

During the next eight months, different teaching artists will conduct two workshops each, so that during the course of the eight months each student will attend sixteen workshops by leading artists in a variety of fields. The software was developed by Binta Ayofemi, a professor at the California College for the Arts in San Francisco where our education advisor Brian Conley is also professor and former Chair of the Graduate Fine Arts program, our program manager in Baghdad is Mohaned Heal, oversight at the Film Center is through Mohamed Al Daraji and Oday Rasheed and the teaching artists are Wafaa Bilal, Sundus Abdul Hadi, Jalal Toufic, Dena Al-Adeeb, Tamara Abdul Hadi, Sinan Antoon and Adel Abidin.

Echo workshop in Baghdad, 2011. Image courtesy of Echo for contemporary Iraqi art. © Echo


Echo workshop with live lectures, 2011. Image courtesy of Echo for contemporary Iraqi art. © Echo

How, what and when will the organisation be accessible to the public? Will the public have access to Echo mainly online, through your website and blog or will there be a physical space that people can visit in Baghdad or elsewhere?

We hope to continue making the organisation public in a number of ways. Through the website, the launch of the blog will encourage user-generated content and all research and materials that we collect will be accessible online. It is also an open space where we are open to contributions and dialogue that may be facilitated online. Offline, our public programmes have been taking place and are planned in various cities around the world through partnerships and collaborations with art centers, universities, exhibition programmes and individuals. These range from the Film Center in Baghdad to the Desert Initiative at the ASU Art Museum to the Venice Biennale and Darat al Funun in Amman. These talks, curatorial projects and public programs will continue in the future. We are fairly mobile because Baghdad is not, at this point, a feasible site to have a physical space. In addition, because of what has taken place, Iraqi artists and Iraqis in general are dispersed throughout the world, Iraq has endured the largest migration in recent history. … For the time being, our programs will take place in a mobile fashion in various cities and sites, though physical sites will emerge in the next year, growing out of the programmes, artists and partners we are working with.

Click here to read more about Iraqi diaspora.

How do you plan to increase the visibility of this organisation in Iraq as well as in the international art community?

Regarding Iraq, one of our main ways of becoming visible was to students and young artists, which we have initially done through the workshops. We hope to continue the education programme in a substantial way and to act as a resource so that there is a means of effectively linking students and artists with the resources and opportunities that may be available to them, or that we can initiate. Apart from the workshops, one of the aims of the website is to engage those in Iraqi with resources, work, and conversation that is taking place. In addition, we are planning on working with writers and artists in Iraq to contribute essays, articles, and other work on the cultural sphere and field in Iraq so that the site may also act as a platform that can further the work already taking place and make it accessible to readers and others both in and outside of Iraq.

Internationally, much of our work is taking place in cities around the world, and as part of the international arts sphere, so that … is taking place intrinsically through the work. Also, because again, the artists are so dispersed, it is important for us to present and have a presence internationally. So, for example, we curated the public programs for the Iraq Pavilion in 2011 in Venice, have partnered with the Desert Initiative at the ASU Art Museum in Phoenix, will be in residence with public programs at Darat al Funun in Amman, presented at the March Meeting at the Sharjah Biennale, held our benefit with Christie’s in Dubai, will be part of the public panels at the Royal College of Art and Gasworks as part of the Arts and Patronage Summit this January in London, will be collaborating on a project at the Glasgow Festival of Art, and so on and so forth.

[Writer’s note: The Christie’s auction for Echo took place in Dubai on 26 October 2011 with works donated by international Iraqi artists including Ahmed AlsoudaniJananne Al-AniWalid SitiWafaa BilalAzad Nanakeli and Rheim Alkadhi.]

Click here to read more on the Iraqi Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale.

Ahmed Alsoudani, ‘Untitled’, 2011. Image courtesy of Echo for contemporary Iraqi art. © Echo

Jananne Al-Ani, ‘Aerial I’, 2011, archival chromogenic C-type print, 2011. Image courtesy of Echo for contemporary Iraqi art. © Echo

Wafaa Bilal, ‘…and Counting’, 2010, photographic print. © Echo

Is the artist-in-residency programme at Darat Al Funun a major component of the organisation? How was the inaugural artist, Rheim Alkadhi, selected? How many artists will be participating per year and how long will each residency period last?

The artist-in-residency programme at Darat Al Funun is one that they have on an ongoing basis as part of their art center, galleries, and exhibitions programmes. This is a specific collaboration that is taking place through a collaborative curatorial selection of Rheim Alkadhi by Sada and Darat al Funun, where Alkadhi will be in residence for two months with an exhibition planned for 2013. Sada will be in residence doing research for the web archive, utilising the libraries, materials and artworks available through Darat al Funun and their collection. This is not necessarily part of an ongoing residency programme with Darat al Funun, however, Sada will be working on artist residencies and exchanges with various partners internationally as a major part of our programming in the future.





In The Daily Star, you spoke about creating an online archive of research materials on the history of modern and contemporary Iraqi art. How are you collecting/gathering these materials? When will this archive be available to the public?

We are planning to launch the bilingual, multimedia Sada Web Platform in the Fall and Winter of 2012. The site will archive, research, map and disseminate the work of diverse artists and act as a location for research, creative production and writing on contemporary Iraqi art, providing a much needed research tool for art historians, artists, and interested users worldwide. The site will serve as a hub connecting artists inside Iraq with those in the diaspora, as well as with the broader international community. By engaging students, artists, and other interested users in Iraq and globally, we hope to create a new space for education and the presentation and exchange of artistic ideas and practices.

Translated materials will make the site accessible to both Arabic and English-speaking populations, breaking down the barriers of isolation built by the limitations of language [and] physical mobility in the Iraqi context. The site will contain curated material, but will also be an interactive space where users are invited to contribute. The Echo blog will serve as an open space for user-generated content. A resource section will also be included with information on grants, grant writing, and residencies to provide cultural practitioners with independent avenues for sustaining their work.

Is Echo mainly funded by ArteEast and the Hivos Foundation? Will the Christie’s auction, held to benefit Echo, become an annual event? How will Echo be funded in the coming years?

Sada is fiscally sponsored by ArteEast, a registered 501(c)(3) based in New York City, and it receives funding through the generous support of the Hivos Foundation. The Christie’s auction was a great source of support for Sada’s ongoing development, and we look forward to the possibility of continuing the auction in the future. Sada is launching a comprehensive fundraising campaign in the spring of 2012, where we see a mix of public and private funding through individual donors and philanthropic giving, sponsorships and Foundation grants.

Exciting times ahead for Echo

In January of 2012, Echo will participate in a public panel at the Royal College of Art and Gasworks in London, and will be collaborating on a project at the Glasgow Festival of Art in April and May of 2012. Echo is also planning to launch its bilingual (Arabic and English) multimedia web platform with a comprehensive online archive in the fall or winter of 2012, a major component of how Echo is addressing its commitment to recording and preserving modern and contemporary Iraqi art.


Related Topics: nonprofit, art spaces, art and the community, Iraqi artists

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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