Contemporary Arabic Representations is a project led by Catherine David, curator of international exhibitions, since 2002, and made up of seminars, exchanges, exhibitions and publications in several European art centers. The Iraqi Equation , the third installment of this series , began with a conference at the University of Sevilla in 2005, with readings by author Ali Bader, journalist Käis Al Azzawi and Middle-East sociologist Pierre-Jean Luizard. The Tapiès Foundation in Barcelona revealed a project with a variety of presentations and forms of public participation. The end result is a set of media installations, artistic films or documentaries, and a wealth of information on Iraq, its current culture and its socio-political and religious conflicts. After Lebanon, Egypt came to the stage. Yet, the singularity of Contemporary Arabic Representations’ third exhibition is that Iraq is a country still at war; a fact that undeniably constrained the curator to meet with those involved in Jordan, London, Brussels or other European capitals.
What is there to see in Contemporary Arabic Representations? The subject matter is knee-deep in the countries’ current events; a refreshing approach and a far cry from the trend common at The Institut du Monde Arabe or The British Museum, where generic artist exhibitions are selected on the basis of national origin or identity .
The social and political complexity of Iraq renders impossible its representation from a single vintage point. One must look at a nation’s history, the works it creates, and the literature and references, which accompany this production.
Let us now step inside the gallery space of the Tapiès Foundation. Before reaching this platform, the visitor must get to the other side the “Bench of Democracy” (Democracy (2005), a work by artist, architect and designer Talal Refit . This passage is achieved physically between images of 20th century Iraqi modernity; photographs taken from the archives of The Arab Foundation for the Image (a selection of images taken in Iraq has been reproduced for the exhibition and is presented in a slideshow). A feeling of nostalgia emanates from showcasing this past, once modern and happy, before entering an actuality, that is still burning and contemporary. These photographs bear witness to the modern life of a pre-war, but post-colonial Iraq. From there, the public is lured towards an open, media-laden space which seeks to interact with current events, in a kind of Baghdad Café decor, with real ottomans and tables where pamphlets, texts, books and web addresses replace the traditional tea and treats. The background wall is a huge fresco; a reproduction of Faisel Laibi Sahi’s mural, Cafeteria in Baghdad .
The exhibition continues in several projection rooms, allowing visitors to take the time to watch each documentary and each witness account, from that of artists to the survivors and activists they met. Maysoon Pachachi, an Iraqi documentary filmmaker exiled in England, plans to create a school and a film festival in Baghdad. Hana Al-Bayati (Aurilllac, 1979), a filmmaker and journalist, has a background in politics and art. Al-Bayati filmed the movie “On Democracy in Iraq” (2003, 52 minutes) at a meeting of the Iraqi opposition in London, three weeks before the American invasion. Tariq Hashim (Baghdad, 1960) who studied theater and film in Baghdad, Copenhagen and Bulgaria returns to an Iraq, full-fledged into war, after 23 years of exile. He tapes 16 hours of film leading to the movie “16 hours in Baghdad” (2004). Filmmaker Baz Shamoun attempts to rediscover his country after 27 years of exile in“Where is Iraq?” (2003). Another work by Talal Refit (Kirkuk, 1957) finishes the exhibition space with an animated drawing entitled “Epilog” [Epilog] (2005); an object’s evolution into what seems like a trap, a symbol and other mysterious forms.
Barcelona presents other documents, publications and documentaries by filmmakers, authors, analysts and activists who chose to film in their country (Koutaiba Al-Janabi, Sinan Antoon, Nedim Kufi, Scheherazade Qassim Hassan, Saadi Youssef…). A collection of documentaries shows people living in Iraq or working to achieve peace; a subject far different from the clichés usually presented by the international media. In Arab societies where God’s will is synonymous with “work” or cult, artists must take into account the claims of creation and the modes of dispersion when conceptualizing their art. This is manifested in the work of the artisan, the effort of the dancer who exhausts his body to get closer to God, or the production of the video artist who appropriates mediums and questions information from the four corners of the earth. Catherine David’s exhibition attempts to give voice to Iraq’s real actors, but this voice is more intended for the Western public than for citizens of the Arab world. After all, European institutions are the ones welcoming these exhibitions. Such organizations are usually more prone to distancing themselves from these conflicts, staying in a place of mere representation. The non-drama of David’s everyday scenes contrasts with the spectacular images of the mass media, both from the Orient (Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya) and the West (CNN, EuroNews…). Yet, is the impact of such an exhibition in an European art center that important in the case of Iraq? Are the artistic activities rightly mixed in with political activism?
Contemporary Arabic Representations forces us to reflect on our relations with the Arabic world, Islam and other cultures beyond. Certainly, in light of Iraq’s current situation, it is difficult, if not impossible, for Iraqi artists to express themselves in their country. They speak up, then, in different venues where History ultimately dictates the content of their activity. The exhibition ends up being diverted by the violence of its subject matter and taken over by the very message it wishes to convey. At the end of Catherine David’s installation, the Iraqi equation is not resolved. This is an exhibition of testimony; Iraq is still at war, and we await another “expedition”: an encounter with works who perhaps take us farther than simple facts. Artists still continue the struggle to recover their country, outside of a museum.
The Project Contemporary Arabic Representation:, the Iraqi Equation is organized by Catherine David with Hana Al-Bayati, Koutaiba Al-Janabi, Sinan Anton, Arab Foundation for the Image, Sawsan Darwaza, Tariq Hashim, Nedim Kufi, Faisel Laibi Sahi, Pierre-Jean Luizard, Maysoon Pachachi, Scheherazade Qassim Hassan, Talal Refit, Salam Pax, Rashad Salim, Samir, Baz Shamoun, Saadi Youssef.
The first and second installments of Contemporary Arabic Representations focused on Beirut and Cairo, respectively, and took places in several European art centers, notably at the Wiite de With (Rotterdam) and the Tapiès Foundation (Barcelona), The third installment “The Iraqi Equation” is organized at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and the Tapiès Foundation (April 28 – June 25, 2006)
See the Exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe “The Gaze of Contemporary Arab photographers” (2006) and “Word into Art” (2006) at the British Museum
Talal Refit, born in 1957 in Kirkuk, lives and works in Bad Bentheim, Germany. Faisel Laibi Sahi, Cafeteria in Baghdad, (1984) 345x148 cm, Ai Al-Bayati Collection)