Once, I learned that Cornerhouse in Manchester was showing the first comprehensive UK exhibition of new and recent contemporary art from Iraq – since the first Gulf War to the present day, I became really intrigued. The show examines new practices and fresh perspectives from a culture torn with conflict, and given the country’s recent historical context and the emphasis of media news stories on political instability, this show explores and challenges expectations of Iraq today.
So, I started to ask myself, what do I know about Iraq. I remember the First Gulf War, although I was only a child, so it’s clouded with memories of patriotism and clear misunderstanding. Obviously, the second time around with George Bush Jr, things are much clearer for me. The piece of footage that has been played over and over again of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down, and of course his execution. But, really what do I know? This exhibition offers us the chance to learn more about this country. As global attention shifts, this show provides a platform for a new generation of artists who acknowledge the aesthetics of conflict, but are not bound by them. Instead, they are fused with collapsing aforementioned associations and seek to broaden awareness of life beyond the brink of war, pointing toward other immediate concerns across the country.
Selecting works across a wide range of media by 19 Iraqi-based artists for Contemporary Art Iraq, Cornerhouse in collaboration with ArtRole, gives a subjective snapshot of the current Iraq art scene. From installation, performance, video, painting and photography, works presented deal with very individual searches for identity, whether national or historical, addressing tradition, beliefs and other themes connected to modern life in Iraq.
The exhibition also overlaps three main themes:
The Changing City
Azar Othman Mahmoud’s installation Bricks, is a reflection on the Iraqi nation building project. Whilst Salam Idwer Yaqoob Al-Loos’ painted triptych of Baghdad, charts the hope and disillusionment post 2003. Jamal Penjweny’s series of photographs Iraq is Flying, playfully reminds us of the childlike wonder of being able to see from a height.
Of Time and Tradition
Bhrhm Taib H. Ameen’s luscious photographs depict traditional characters of Iraq, theatricality staged in contrast to reality. Mustafa Mumtaz Noori’s Joza and Rbaba, sees musical instruments converted into weapons and Sawar Mohamad Amin’s documentary Yayli, follows the loss of livelihood for local men driving horse-drawn carts.
Muhammad Sale Rosramzada and Wrya Budaghi are internally displaced and therefore denied the right to vote in performance and video piece, Our Finger Hasn’t Got Ink Yet. For Traffic, another performance to video work, Gaylan Abdulla Ismahel brings a crowd to a roundabout in Erbil to protest against the high number of traffic accidents there. Julie Adnan’s powerful portrait series, Born in Jail, presents photographs of women who live with their children in prison.
With regards to the broader context and the global art market, we must ask ourselves, will Iraqi art develop like that of Chinese or Indian? Will collectors be rushing off to buy, buy, and buy? And what will the consequences be for the art if this is the case? There are two sides to every story, of course this will be good for the artists, but what will this do with regards to understanding the region? Finally, who benefits the most when pieces turn up a Bonhams? Is it the artists? Collectors? The region? I feel these are themes worth hashing out. A few issues ago, I discussed this topic about Middle Eastern Art with Daniela Da Prato. Read the article here.
Julie Adnan (Kirkuk), Aryan Abubakr Ali (Sulaymaniyah), Salam Idwer Yaqoob Al-loos (Baghdad), Bhrhm Taib H. Ameen (Sulaymaniyah), Sarwar Mohamad Amin (Sulaymaniyah), Bitwen Ali Hamad (Sulaymaniyah), Gailan Abdulha Ismail (Erbil), Azar Othman Mahmud (Sulaymaniyah), Zana Rasul Mohammed (Sulaymaniyah), Natheer Muslim (Baghdad), Rohzgar Mahmood Mustafa (Sulaymaniyah), Yadgar Abubakir Nassradin (Sulaymaniyah), Mustafa Mumtaz Noori (Baghdad), Jamal Penjweny (Sulaymaniyah), Roshna Rasool (Sulaymaniyah), Mohammad Sale & Wrya Budaghi (Erbil), Hemn Hamed Sharef (Erbil), Mohammed Abdulhussein Yousif (Baghdad).
This exhibition also seeks to continue Artrole’s mission to develop international cultural exchanges with the Middle East. Their previous activities include the first major Post-War Art & Culture Festival at The Red Jail, Saddam Hussein’s security building in Iraqi-Kurdistan (7 – 9 Nov 2009). The festival presented Richard Wilson’s seminal installation 20:50 for the first time in the Middle East and mounted exhibitions by British and American artists alongside over 50 Iraqi artists. For this show expect compelling installations, transfixing photography and thought provoking video works that will delight and shed light on the fascinating state of Iraq now.
Contemporary Art Iraq is co-curated by Cornerhouse and ArtRole. Supported by British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI), Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW) and City Inn, Manchester.
Artists: (c) NAMO and Wrya Budaghi
Artwork Election, courtesy ArtRole