The region that is modern day Iraq is composed of alluvial plain, a bit of the Zagros mountain range to the East and the Syrian Desert to the West. The area was once known as Mesopotamia—the land between the rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) and was home to some of the earliest civilizations such as the Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian. Today, however, it is only thought of as a war zone. For the past 30 years Iraq has been overwhelmed by war. The Iran-Iraq war followed by the Gulf War and most recently the US invasion and Iraq War (2003-2011) has left the people reeling. Today, the nation is still plagued by sectarian violence between rival Islamic factions: Shia, Kurdish, Sunni. The government system in place (after extensive US intervention) is a Federal Parliamentary Constitutional Republic led by a right wing Islamic party. However, the day to day life of an Iraqi citizen is still beleaguered by fear and dysfunction. Power outages are common and for the Iraqi artists shown in the Venice Biennale this year, the complete lack of cultural infrastructure makes it hard just to get by. Looking East from a Western perspective is problematic because of the tendency to come from an affluent place of self-proclaimed superiority this is especially relevant when considering the fraught relationship between the US and Iraq.
Welcome to Iraq, the casually kitschy title of the 55th Biennale’s Iraq Pavilion introduces the hospitable nature of the show. Jonathan Watkins, British curator of the Ikon Gallery in London, made visits to Baghdad, Basra, Babylon and Kurdistan and chose 11 artists as the best representatives of the painstaking “make do” way of life he witnessed. Watkins crafted the curatorial message after his travels to Iraq based upon the cheery and eager natures of the people he met. The somewhat contradictory emotional atmosphere of the nation is not what you would expect. Despite immense odds and what many of the artists refer to as a “communal fear” there is also a pervasive sense of hopefulness for the future which manifests as a determined optimism. The exhibition features a wide array of media, from traditional oil painting, installation, photography and video. The nature of the exhibition, as a product of an insulated and stunted artistic community, is not avant-garde. It’s not cosmopolitan, or even very contemporary. But, it is authentic. It is a real portrayal of an art that despite great odds is an attempt at meaningful expression, an expression of a will to live.
The Kurdish artist Jamal Penjweny worked as a photographer and correspondent during the Iraq War and claims that he became an artist almost by accident. His previous works and the series displayed at the Biennale excellently portray the complex and conflicting emotional and social atmosphere of Iraq. His series for the Pavilion titled “Saddam is Here” is both comic and poignant evoking Saddam’s pervasive influence even after his death. The propagandized image of Saddam as godfather is still present in some minds while in others’ his memory is a nightmare. Either way he has left an indelible mark on the people. Of his work Jamal Penjweny stated, “I want the people to realize that the people in “Saddam is Here” are all human beings with a shared history of fear that we should overcome together. As individuals in our society we must challenge policies made to segregate individuals in their own identities and confront our fears. Art should have a leading role in this.”
Cheeman Ismaeel was born in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, in 1966 where she still lives and works today. Her works for the Biennale are objects taken from her own home that she fastidiously painted by hand. Such objects as her television, clock and lunch pail are turned into merry decorations and deeper, a revealing self-portrait. The intimate interiority of this artist’s works reflects the desire to escape the woes of Iraq daily life. Once inside one’s own home the melee of the exterior world can be turned away from. It is in this way that Ismaeel operates, similarly no doubt to many other Iraqi citizens. While the difficulties of life in Iraq inevitably inform her work, the influence is less explicit than fellow Kurdistan artist, Jamal Penjweny.
Abdul Raheem Yassir born in Qadisiyah, Iraq in 1951 and now working and living in Baghdad is a well renowned political cartoonists working within Iraq. Taking a different angle than the other artists he responds to the absurdity of his circumstances with ironic playfulness and poignancy. His style is smart in the way it suggests innocence yet implies a much deeper awareness of the emotional zeitgeist in Iraq. His cartoons are extremely effective and highly accessible for how political they are. It is all at once socially critical and expressive of a communal understanding that is rare.
Analysis of Success:
The Iraq Pavilion was a success on many levels. The overwhelming amount of positive press it garnered is a good measurement of this and of the successful dissemination of the curatorial message: to see Iraq in a new way and to individualize the people. Hopefully, the increased communication with their global peers will enliven the art networks within Iraq and hopefully ensure participation in International art exhibitions in the future. Jonathan Watkins, as director and curator, did an excellent job in his selection of artists. Each individual portrayed a different and yet cohesively authentic element of Iraq as a whole to a pleasantly unexpected effect. Politics, inevitably involved in the process, were here harnessed for the benefit of the Iraqi people. It can be said that this exhibition, held outside of Iraq, will do little to effect the state of life within Iraq. Money from non-governmental institutions being pumped into projects outside of the nation, while seemingly unproductive, will increase global awareness on both sides and lead to the rebuilding of cultural infrastructure within Iraq as well. Why? Because of the Biennale there is now interest in Iraq other than that of oil and weapons. As an initial step in a more globalized direction surely the outcome of the Iraq Pavilion will prove beneficial.