Critics’ Picks

View of Wafaa Bilal, “168:01,” 2018.

View of Wafaa Bilal, “168:01,” 2018.


Wafaa Bilal

Aga Khan Museum
77 Wynford Drive
July 14–August 19, 2018

As I stared at 168:01, Wafaa Bilal’s baldly simple tribute to a destroyed library in Iraq—a spare exhibition comprised of six rows of white bookshelves stocked with white jacketed books filled with blank pages, plus a white table and office chair—my friend asked me a question I had never considered. When one invading entity sets out to destroy another, why do they first burn the books? A follow-up question: Why do so many in the West react with horror at such attacks but at the same time seem indifferent to the chronic undervaluing and underfunding of its own libraries and schools?

Looking at Bilal’s work, plunked into a museum-palace just north of rich and spoiled Toronto, I experienced a twinge of shame for my ingratitude toward the art and culture around me, and for my ignorance of the tragedy his installation addresses: the incineration of the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts library by looters during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The exhibition is not much to look at, and that’s the point; after a library has been annihilated, it leaves a vacuum, as devoid of information as Bilal's “appears” to be. I use appears because, over the course of the exhibition, it is hoped that all of the blank books will be replaced by real ones, purchased by visitors from a wish list created by the college's faculty and students.

In the ongoing, necessary progress of reconciliation between the (flawed constructs designated as) East and West, Bilal’s project is a seemingly tiny but metaphorically complex step: Bilal builds a stand-in for a violent act of erasure instigated by the West and then fuels the exhibition's end goal-its own erasure-with Western purchasing power. As the Italian diplomat Daniele Varè once wrote, “Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.”