Iraqi-American artist aims to rebuild book collection

Wafaa Bilal launches Kickstarter campaign to replace destroyed art library of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts.

College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad
The 168:01 project allows the public to buy white books which will be replaced with art titles [Courtesy of Wafaa Bilal]

In 2003 after the American invasion of Iraq, there was widespread looting and chaos. Among the casualties of the violence was the library of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. The entire collection of books – in excess of 70,000 titles – was destroyed.

More than a decade later, the books have not been replaced. Through his interactive art installation, Iraqi-born, New York-based Wafaa Bilal is amending that.

Book Exchange

His next show entitled 168:01 creates a platform for exchange. A 12-metre-long and 1,80-metre-high bookshelf stacked with 1,000 blank, white books will occupy a central gallery space at The Art Gallery of Windsor in Ontario , Canada – opening at the end of January.

Each blank book represents one text on a 1,000-book wish list created by faculty and students at the college in Baghdad. (Bilal had at first asked for an old index from the school, but that too had been destroyed.)

Through a Kickstarter campaign , donors can purchase a lost book – and have it replace the barren book on the museum shelf. And one by one the white books will cede their place to the valued art titles.

The donor will receive the unmarked book to remind them of their contribution, but also to remind them of the “spark that this library will represent in Iraq,” Bilal said. “I think this is just the beginning of hopefully restoring so many things that the culture lost.”

Bilal then plans to ship the 1,000 titles off to Baghdad when the exhibition closes. But before the show even opened – he received some five times the initial grassroots’ fundraising target of $9,000. The response was “way beyond my expectations,” said, Bilal who is also an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It’s conceivable now that the entire collection of 70,000 prints – everything from technical books to art history titles – might be “resurrected” from the ashes, Bilal thinks.

The idea has been three years in the making, and grew from a need to include people outside of the exhibit space – and to leave behind a tangible result, Bilal said. He wanted to “generate more impact” than just viewers being moved by some participatory element of his art.

Show Title 168:01 and The Ashes Series

The renowned artist also searched for a show title that was symbolic and thought provoking. “This title (168:01) brings the past and the present together.” The name of the exhibit harkens back to Baghdad’s Islamic Golden Age and the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), a flourishing public library that was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Legend has it that the books were flung into the Tigris river and the water ran with ink for seven days – or 168 hours. The :01 in Bilal’s title is about what happened after those tragic days, the very second or “moment the process of rebuilding” began, he said. It is a title of both loss and rebirth.

One either side of the bookshelf exhibit at The Art Gallery of Windsor in Ontario are two rooms that will showcase photographs from Bilal’s  The Ashes Series . The artist created dioramas – reconstructing 3D models from press images of war. Bilal then photographed the sets he built – depictions of “the suffering of war not through human displays of emotion, but rather through the absence of human life,” the artist wrote.

  The Ashes Series [Courtesy Wafaa Bilal]        The Ashes Series [Courtesy Wafaa Bilal]  
  The Ashes Series [Courtesy of Wafaa Bilal]The Ashes Series [Courtesy of Wafaa Bilal]

Reconstructing the destroyed spaces provides a way for me to exist within them and, in a sense, to rebuild the places in Iraq where my brother and father were killed … to give the ephemeral moment extended life in a mix of beauty and violence.”

The Ashes Series [Courtesy of Wafaa Bilal]The Ashes Series [Courtesy of Wafaa Bilal]

Two Worlds

Bilal said he lives between two worlds: the “comfort zone” – his home in New York – and the “conflict zone” of his native Iraq and conscience. The artist grew up under the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein. He had to flee the country in 1991 because of his political activities and his opposition to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

“I ended up on the border with Kuwait. We made it, we were lucky,” Bilal said. “Can you imagine (an Iraqi) arriving in Kuwait?,” Bilal marveled now. He stayed in a refugee camp for some time and then was shipped off by Americans forces to the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia and told, “Here is your home”. It was “home” for two years, Bilal said. The images now of Syrian and Iraqi refugees trigger a lot of emotions for the artists because “I know what they are going through.”

Bilal remembers leaving home and knowing that there was no place to go when night fell. “The anxiety and the fear and you’re living from one day to another day.”

Bilal eventually made it to the US and he has his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His family remained in Iraq.

Body of Work

Bilal’s previous work has been noted for its provocative nature. In Domestic Tension , he camped out for a month in a Chicago gallery and people could go online and ‘shoot’ him with a paintball gun. The objective was to “raise awareness of virtual war and privacy, or lack thereof, in the digital age.”

For and Counting , the artist used his body as a canvas covering his back with tattoo dots for Iraqi and American casualties – his own brother Haji was killed at a checkpoint in Kufa. “But the deaths of Iraqis like his brother are largely invisible to the American public,” the artists writes. Thus the American deaths were marked by permanent visible ink and the Iraqis by green UV ink, invisible except under black lights.

In 3rdi , Bilal had a camera temporarily implanted on the back of his head to capture the images of his life – one every 60 seconds. “Many times while I was in transit and chaos the images failed to fully register, I did not have the time to absorb them.”

While 168:01 still brings together his two worlds, it’s a less antagonistic project then the others. “It is not about sparking some sort of argument but rather (about) bringing people together,” Bilal said. “It’s an exchange platform … and what becomes of it is left up to the people.” It’s a more hopeful project than the others perhaps because he is in a different space emotionally now, Bilal said. He wants to bypass the politics and the red tape and connect people to people.

His is an interactive art exchange project that has no end – it “has only a beginning,” Bilal said. “It’s this idea of – the war has to be over. We have to move forward.”

Source: Al Jazeera


Books rescued from Mosul at the Dominican Priory in Qaraqosh, Iraq, are displayed [AP]

Many Iraqis evoke popular saying about the loss of non-human objects: ‘May the books be a sacrifice for the people.’

Opinion by
Published On 27 Feb 2015
More from Features
Most Read