BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 14 SEP 13
Featured in
Issue 157

Welcome to Iraq

The 55th Venice Biennale

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 14 SEP 13

As a title, ‘Welcome to Iraq’ is oddly shocking. As we all know, ten years have passed since the coun­try was illegally invaded by the us and its allies (in­cluding the UK, Australia and Poland) in order to locate non-existent weapons of mass destruction. It was the beginning of a conflict that was to involve 36 other countries and which is still, to all intents and purposes, ongoing. Estimates vary but the war has resulted in more than a million deaths and approximately 4.2 million displaced persons. I can’t remember ever hearing anyone say anything even remotely positive about the region.

The point of the pavilion, which includes the work of 11 artists who live in the country, is – despite the complexity of the situation – simple: to open up a cultural exchange between Iraq and the rest of the world. (Iraq was also included in the Biennale of 2011, but the artists involved lived outside the country.) As one of this year’s artists, Jamal Penjweny, said: ‘People think of Iraq as no more than a war zone. But in these places you can find a lot of art and a lot of hope.’ 

Jamal Penjweny, from the series ‘Saddam is Here’, 2009–10, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and RUYA Foundation, Baghdad

The exhibition is installed in a beautiful apartment in Ca’ Dandolo, a 16th-century building overlooking the Grand Canal. When I visited, it was full of the smell of Kleytcha, a traditional Iraqi delicacy: biscuits had been made by a baker at a Venetian pastry shop under the instruction of an Iraqi woman (they were delicious). We were invited to eat and drink tea, relax in the salon on Iraqi cushions and rugs, and learn about Iraqi culture through conversation, reading and looking. The gentle sounds of an oud filled the palazzo. The pavilion was, indeed, welcoming. The exhibition – which has a fascinating blog, – was curated by Jonathan Watkins, director of IKON in Birmingham, and commissioned by the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture (RUYA), an NGO founded in 2012 by supporters of Iraqi art and culture. When I asked Watkins why the show wasn’t curated by someone local, his reply was blunt: ‘There are no curators in Iraq.’ Accompanied by Tamara Chalabi of RUYA, he travelled from Kurdistan and Basra to Sulaimaniya and Baghdad, visiting studios, galleries and museums. I know next to nothing about Iraqi art – and I don’t think I’m alone in that – but the show is terrific: full of wit (Abdul Raheem Yassir’s deadpan political cartoons); fury (Kadhim Nwir’s series of paintings ‘Dodging Car Bombs’, 2013) sur­real pathos (Penjweny’s photographic series ‘Saddam is Here’, 2009–10, of people holding a photograph of Saddam in front of their faces); improvisation in the face of deprivation (the furniture and portraits created from cardboard by Yaseen Wami and Hashim Taeeh, who work together as WAMI; and Akeel Khreef’s objects made from rubbish); cosmic ideas of hurt and healing (Furat al Jamil’s sculpture that incorporated honey dripping into a broken antique pot; and Cheeman Ismaeel’s diaristic paintings on everyday objects); and the vagaries of everyday love (in films by Hareth Alhomaam and Ali Samiaa).

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It’s impossible to imagine what kind of challenges artists face in Iraq today, but this exhibition reveals a great spirit of resilience, improvisation and humour. Above all, it’s a reminder that, as Watkins declares in his excellent catalogue essay: ‘Iraq is dysfunctional to say the least, punch-drunk after successive batterings – the war with Iran, the sanctions, the invasion and occupation, and cruel sectarian terror – but not yet knocked out.’

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.