The Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq (Ruya) is pleased to announce its plans for the National Pavilion of Iraq at the 56th Venice Biennale in May 2015. The exhibition, Invisible Beauty, will be curated by Philippe Van Cauteren, Artistic Director of S.M.A.K. (Museum for Contemporary Art) in Ghent. It will feature five contemporary artists from across Iraq and the diaspora. The artists work in a range of media and the Pavilion will include new works that have been produced specifically for the exhibition as well as works that have been rediscovered after long periods of inattention. The exhibition will be accompanied by a display of over 500 drawings made by refugees in northern Iraq. World renowned artist Ai Weiwei has selected a number of these drawings for a major publication that will launch at the Biennale.
‘Invisible Beauty’ refers both to the unusual or unexpected subjects in the works that will be on display and to the inevitable invisibility of Iraqi artists on the international stage. The relationship of art to survival, record-keeping, therapy and beauty are amongst the many themes raised by the exhibition. The endlessly interpretable title is intended to reveal the many different ways of approaching art generated by a country that has been subjected to war, genocide, violations of human rights and, in the last year, the rise of Isis. The systematic demolition of the cultural heritage of Iraq by Isis, seen recently in the destruction of centuries-old historical sites at Hatra, Nimrud and Nineveh and the events at the Mosul Museum, has made it more important than ever to focus on artists continuing to work in Iraq.
Curator Philippe Van Cauteren has said: ‘Invisible Beauty is like a fragile membrane that registers the oscillations of an artistic practice permeated by the current condition of the country and the state of the arts.’
The artists in the exhibition will comprise two generations of Iraqi photographers, in the shape of Latif Al Ani and Akam Shex Hadi, performance artist Rabab Ghazoul, ceramicist and sculptor Salam Atta Sabri and painter Haider Jabbar. This selection was chosen by Van Cauteren following a journey to Iraq that was organised and facilitated by Ruya and carried out in company with Tamara Chalabi, the Foundation’s Chair and Co-founder. Van Cauteren and Chalabi also visited Iraqi artists working in the US, Turkey, Belgium and the UK.
Both Al Ani and Atta Sabri are based in Baghdad, whilst Shex Hadi is based in Iraqi Kurdistan and Jabbar and Ghazoul work outside of Iraq, in Turkey and Wales respectively. A great number of Iraqi artists continue to practise an orthodox aesthetic tradition that is constrained by classical education methods. The Pavilion artists represent a break from these traditional constraints, both in terms of style and media and in terms of wider social concerns such as gender and age. All of the artists relate to the current political situation in their work, negotiating between ethics and aesthetics, social concerns and artistic values. With the artists’ ranging ages, the exhibition in some ways represents a mental and emotional history of Iraq and seeks to ask what the word ‘contemporary’ can mean for a nation that lacks a well developed cultural infrastructure.
Latif Al Ani (b. 1932) is considered the founding father of Iraqi photography and his extensive documentary career spans from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, when it became impossible to photograph in public due to the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere of the Saddam regime and the Iran-Iraq War. A duality of thinking makes both modernising trends and the retention of ancient traditions themes of Al Ani’s work and the Pavilion exhibition will focus on works from the early period of his career.
By contrast, Akam Shex Hadi (b. 1985) represents a later generation of Iraqi photography and his staged, symbolic works have seen him participate in photography festivals across Asia and the Middle East. His work, along with that of Haider Jabbar, is concerned with the rise of Isis and the refugee crisis. He has created a new work for the Pavilion that consists of 28 photographs. A recurrent motif in the series is an unwinding thread, which resembles a snake but is revealed to be the Isis flag, a continuous reminder of its ensnaring qualities. Shek Hadi will also present a series of aerial photographs depicting what appears to be a large floor clock, except that the digits are not in their expected positions. A prostrate figure representing a hand of the clock makes the works a rumination on human capitulation to time, a kind of momento mori.
Painter Haider Jabbar (b. 1986) will show a series of watercolour portraits reflecting on the Isis crisis and the numerous victims it has claimed. These works are shocking, often brutal, renditions of the fates of young men who have died in the conflict. The men are identified only by case numbers and Jabbar, who considers himself part of a generation of young men who have had their lives needlessly ruined by decades of conflict in Iraq, intends to make 2,000 of these works. Jabbar is himself a refugee, now living and working in Turkey with the support of the Ruya Foundation.
Rabab Ghazoul (b. 1970) also responds to her particular geographical relationship to Iraq in her work. Based in Wales, Ghazoul is producing a new performance work for the Pavilion that will take the Chilcot Enquiry for its point of departure. Ghazoul’s work investigates our relationship with political and social structures and part of this new work will be an inventory of official testimonies about the Iraq war, newly spoken by anonymous British citizens. This aspect of the work highlights three of the exhibition’s key themes – art as an act of cataloguing, the correlation between the moment that a work is made and its formal qualities and ideas about what constitutes community. Ghazoul, who will be the only female artist on display, has had several solo exhibitions in Cardiff and has participated in numerous group exhibitions in Wales and the rest of Europe.
Salam Atta Sabri (b.1953) has worked extensively in arts administration in Iraq and abroad but despite training as a ceramicist and drawing extensively, he has never shown his drawings in public. He produced some 300 drawings between 2012 and 2015 that he has never shown in public and more than 100 of them will appear at the Pavilion. These intensely personal works exhibit the experience of an artist striving to create under the shadow of a crumbling arts infrastructure. Atta Sabri returned to Baghdad in 2005 after having lived in the US and Jordan for 16 years and his drawings can be understood as a diary in which the artist addresses the existential tragedy he undergoes returning to his native city.
As more and more ancient sites and shrines that are part of the universal heritage of Iraq are being destroyed, Ruya believes it is more important than ever to focus on artists who continue to work in such difficult circumstances. The Pavilion will provide a platform to make these artists visible.
TRACES FOR SURVIVAL: Drawings by Refugees in Iraq selected by Ai Weiwei
The exhibition will be accompanied by a display of drawings made by refugees in northern Iraq. In December 2014 Ruya launched a campaign to provide drawing materials to adult men and women in refugee camps. Ruya visited Camp Shariya, Camp Baharka and Mar Elia Camp and over five days the Foundation collected 546 submissions, including drawings, poetry and prose, all of which will be on display.
The submissions present incredibly powerful responses to life within the refugee camps. A depiction of tanks and aircraft returning fire on each other was drawn by a forty-year-old man carrying the caption, ‘our people have only lived amongst wars and destruction’, whilst another image depicts an isolated figure in a flooded refugee camp who petitions, ‘save us from drowning. I am Iraqi’. By contrast, other drawings depict life before the refugee crisis, including a shining depiction of Mosul before Isis took control and a depiction of a traditional Yazidi festival.
A number of these images have been selected by Ai Weiwei for a major publication, TRACES FOR SURVIVAL: Drawings by Refugees in Iraq selected by Ai Weiwei, that will be published to coincide with the Biennale. Proceeds from the book will go back to those who provided the content.