Art in a time of war

Iraqi artists showcase their work at the Venice Biennale art expo for the first time since the US-led invasion in 2003.


Venice, Italy - For the first time since the outbreak of the second war in Iraq, work by the country's artists is on show at the Venice Biennale, the largest international contemporary art festival in the world. 

Known as the Olympics of art, the Biennale features more than 60 pavilions showcasing artwork from around the world. Work by 11 Iraqi artists is on display in a palace on the famous Grand Canal.

Each creator's style differs from the others, but all are drawn from the same well of darkness that has shadowed their lives during the past decade. Some of the works are painted, but many are made from the limited range of materials available to artists in the country: cardboard, plastic bottles, even toilet rolls.

The show has been curated by Jonathan Watkins, director of Britain's Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, who travelled around Iraq looking for artists who had stayed in the country throughout the war and its aftermath.

"It is hard to overstate the degree to which the artists selected for this exhibition until now have been cut off," he said. "They have had no access to art magazines, books and are not visited by international curators."

Sparse materials

Yaseen Wami, from Basra, who makes sculptures out of cardboard, said: "I make art to continue my dreams. For me, art is my home, my life, everything. We have no galleries, but I cannot live without art."

His work features a bedroom in which all the furnishings - including a table lamp, rug, and even books on a bookshelf - are made from old packaging. "I wanted to show that you can make something out of any material and build things again," he said.

Next to it stands a cardboard sculpture of Adam and Eve by Hashim Taeeh. "The sanctions hit us worse than the bombing," said Taeeh. "The little money I had I was obliged to spend on food for my family."

Scores killed in Iraq car bombngs

Even now, oil and acrylic paints are too expensive for him to buy, and the cardboard he finds in rubbish heaps or buys cheaply from shops offers an alternative.

"Cardboard is an important element in everyday life for people living in Iraq. People sit or sleep on it. It is used for boarding up smashed windows," he said.

Other exhibits in the show also reuse old materials to impressive aesthetic effect. A stool that looks like an ancient Chinese bronze one is, on closer inspection, made of the frame of an old bicycle and its tyres.

"I always wanted a bicycle when I was a child, but my parents could never afford one," says 34-year-old Akeel Khreef, who built the piece. "Whenever I got home from school I would give my pocket money to a neighbour to borrow his bike. Now I own a car."

Since the end of the war Khreef, like many Iraqi contemporary artists, have found that they have been able to sell their work to collectors in nearby countries including Kuwait and Bahrain. Another of Khreef's works is made out of an electricity generator - a widespread feature of domestic life in Iraq, where there are regular power cuts. "Many people have hearing defects created by living with the constant noise they emit," he said.

One of the most poignant works in the show is a film made by Jamal Penjweny about the young Iraqi men who eke out a living smuggling alcohol on horseback into Iran, where customs officials have been known to shoot smugglers dead. "I am sick of this life - I would like to be hanged or killed," says one angry and tired-looking smuggler.

A string of frames taken from a beehive hang from the ceiling and drip with blood. They are an elegy by one of only two women exhibiting work in the show. "Honey is symbolic for its healing properties on all animals," said Furat al-Jamil. "We have a broken civilisation, broken families and broken senses."

Criticism through satire

There are lighter moments in the show, too: cartoons by Abdul Raheem Yassir articulate with great wit the fear that still stalks the country.

In one drawing, an artist is seen painting a picture of a bomb as it hurtles towards him. In others, refuse is seen piled to the sky, due to infrequent collections, while a motorist is depicted throwing his watch high into the air because it is impossible to be on time in the place that has constantly gridlocked traffic. In another cartoon, a man is seen leaning out of a window, frustrated in his attempt to connect a lightbulb in the face of the tangle of wiring that is Baghdad's electricity grid.

Inside Story: Iraq ten years on

The poor materials and the Iraqi artists' ethos of "making do and getting by" is a far cry from the spoils of capitalism seen elsewhere in the Biennale, where plastic surgery and the banking crisis are recurring themes in the art pavilions, and where multi-storey yachts line the lagoons.

The Biennale features a total of eight pavilions from Middle Eastern countries this year - more than ever before - with Kuwait and Bahrain taking part for the first time.

The pavilion of the United Arab Emirates, featuring work by Mohammed Kazem, is an immersive experience in which the viewer is invited to walk into a room surrounded by the sea and to feel lost in it. Next to it is the Lebanese pavilion, which features a film by the country's art superstar Akram Zaatari about an Israeli pilot who was asked to bomb a school during the war there, but instead dropped his payload in the sea.

The Turkish pavilion features a series of films by the young Istanbul-based video artist Ali Kamza. His work highlights the way that people transform their bodies in manners that can be absurd, but also, sometimes, necessary. A line of men is seen flexing their muscles at a weightlifting competition opposite a woman having a cataract operation; a woman hanging from the ceiling in a bondage session is juxtaposed with a film of the famed Italian actress Isabella Rossellini dressing up as a bird for an advertisement.

Art about the internet

A particularly innovative show comes from Saudi Arabia and is curated by Sara Raza, on behalf of the art collective Edge of Arabia. It is one of the few shows in the Biennale to address the work being completed by the generation of artists that has come of age since the advent of the internet.

The internet is probably the most important platform for artists in the Middle East.

Abdulnasser Gharem, Edge of Arabia

An estimated 49 percent of Saudis use the internet, and the country boasts 190 million YouTube views each day - the highest per capita in the world. The effect of this technology is plain to see in an exhibition entitled  Rhizoma, which means an underground stem that sends out shoots.

"The internet is probably the most important platform for artists in the Middle East," says Abdulnasser Gharem, one of the founders of Edge of Arabia. "Technology has made it easier for us to create content."

Centred on a majlis in the middle of the gallery are computers showing some of the YouTube programmes created by Tefaz11, a collective based in Riyadh that aims to promote artists' work.

Its most popular show,  Temsa7LY, features a loud-mouthed alligator that currently gets more than two million viewers a week. 

Dispelling the usual view of women in Saudi Arabia was a concern of many of the female artists in this show. Nouf Alhimiary spoofed the Outfit Of The Day fashion blogging trend, with photos of women in Saudi Arabia in a variety of settings from restaurants to hospitals and libraries all wearing the same thing - the abaya - but highlighting subtly distinct details in their hemlines and embroidery.

Eiman Elgibreen's beautifully crafted works satirise the Western dominance of contemporary art. In a clever imitation of paintings by the impressionist painter Edgar Degas, dance instructors are shown judging ballerinas, while Saudi female artists hold their paintings in front of a panel of Western celebrity judges including Simon Cowell.

There is also a work by Ahmed Angawi, documenting the transformation of Mecca from a time when the Kaaba dwarfed all around it to today, in which it is overshadowed by towering international hotels.

The Venice Biennial runs until November 24, 2013.