PRINT September 2013

Negar Azimi

View of “Welcome to Iraq,” 2013, Iraqi pavilion, Venice. On left wall: Kadhim Nwir, Untitled, 2011. On right wall: Kadhim Nwir, Untitled, 2011. Photo: Kate Lacey.

ONE OF THE WORKS IN THIS YEAR’S IRAQI PAVILION features a simple ink caricature of two men scrambling to capture a falling missile with what appears to be a stretcher. It is absurd and heartbreaking, and in many ways it perfectly captures the spirit and ethos of a country still deeply mired in the legacy of a war that began a decade ago. In the setting of a breathtaking sixteenth-century palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal, however, it makes for a strangely sublimated encounter with Iraq. Marked by dozens of resource books about the region in Arabic and English, homemade Iraqi cookies and oversweet Iraqi tea, along with poufy sofas and colorful carpets, the pavilion goes to great lengths to live up to the exhibition’s happy title: “Welcome to Iraq.”

After taking multiple trips to the country, traveling (by armored convoy no less) to Baghdad, Babylon, Kurdistan, and Basra, British curator Jonathan Watkins decided to show eleven artists, almost all of them based in Iraq. His selections range from classical landscape paintings depicting villagers in the country’s bucolic marshlands (beaux-arts easel style—strangely, by one of the youngest artists in the exhibition, Bassim Al-Shaker) to video in the familiar documentary mode to inventive sculptures made from found objects. The breadth of work on view, some of it terrific, conveys the diversity of art production in Iraq today.

A sense of DIY improvisation is in play in cardboard sculptures by the Basra-based collective WAMI, which make up the contents of an entire bedroom. Kurdish artist Jamal Penjweny’s cheeky portraits of Iraqis holding a black-and-white photo of Saddam Hussein over their faces manage to momentarily animate the dark legacy of the country’s former leader. The aforementioned cartoons by Abdul Raheem Yassir, meanwhile, are at once searing and comic, suggesting a nameless anxiety hovering over the country. These works and others in the pavilion reveal artists making do in spite of their country’s precarious—and in some regions, nonexistent—cultural infrastructure.

A text and video blog accompanying the exhibition—as well as the catalogue produced for the occasion—makes transparent the process by which Watkins went about his research in collaboration with Tamara Chalabi, whose Baghdad-based Ruya Foundation supported the exhibition. (Her enterprise seems to have nothing to do with her father, Ahmed, a pivotal voice in calling for the 2003 US invasion.) The pair’s visits to a plucky Baghdad gallery, to IraqiKurdistan, and to Saddam’s surreally kitsch reproduction of the Ishtar Gate bring alive a place that many outside Iraq have difficulty envisaging beyond the lens of the destruction wrought by an unlawful Western intervention, particularly given the dearth of literature and cinema available in translation today.

Neither ethnographic, lugubriously humanitarian, nor straightforwardly political in the manner of, say, Jeremy Deller’s admittedly powerful bombed-out car-cum-sculpture from Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street, the work in the pavilion is probably a faithful reflection of contemporary art from Iraq. And yet, when I walked into the palazzo on an especially rain-drenched day during the preview of the Biennale, I paused when Watkins announced that the Iraqi pavilion was the most “comfortable” of them all. In the context of an art world often bent on repressing gratuitous signs of sentimentality or, alternatively, the claptrap of cultural specificity, the Arabian Nights setting, replete with tea and cookies, is a brave decision. Nevertheless, all of the pavilion’s Oriental flourishes, all those beautifications of the mess and confusion of contemporary Iraq, are entirely unnecessary: The works are more than capable of speaking for themselves, without any help from Scheherazade.

Negar Azimi is senior editor of Bidoun magazine.