PRINT February 2020



View of “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011,” 2019–20, MoMA PS1, New York. From left: Khalifa Qattan, Desert Storm, 1979; Michel Auder, Gulf War TV War, 1991–2017; Khalifa Qattan, Kuwait Is Burning, 1971. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

THIS PAST OCTOBER, Mohammed Okab stood before a tribunal at Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia and presented a painting he had made of an arched entryway at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. Through a translator, he explained that he didn’t consider himself an artist—he just liked to paint. He had been employed as a bookseller in Baghdad when American troops invaded the city in April 2003, launching a rocket through the museum where, days later, looting would begin.

Okab’s painting and speech functioned as evidence of the Iraq War’s lasting consequences and were presented as part of the two-hour performance A People’s Tribunal: 28 Exhibits, organized by the collective HEKLER. In staging this tribunal, the organizers anticipated, and offered a model for, a justice that may never come to pass, prefiguring the moment when the United States will at last be held accountable for its continuing assault on Iraqi lives.

Kareem Risan, Al Mutanabbi Street, 2007, mixed media on paper mounted on board; closed: 16 1⁄2 × 16 1⁄2 × 3 1⁄2".

Spanning three decades and counting, the tragedy of the American military involvement with Iraq has introduced a number of dramatis personae: puttering administrators, military officials, presidents of varying guile and guilt. Since George H. W. Bush deployed US troops in 1990 to deter Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, these actors have, through word and deed, sanctions and occupations, decimated a landscape, crippled an economy, killed one million Iraqis, and displaced millions more. They were motivated by greed and propelled by racist and Islamophobic propaganda. To these functionaries we may credit numerous vacuous neologisms (“reality-based community” and “preventive self-defense” among them) coined to justify imperialist expansion. “We’re an empire now,” asserted one of President George W. Bush’s aides in 2002, “and when we act, we create our own reality. . . . We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Hanaa Malallah, She/He Has No Picture (detail), 2019, brass plaques, burnt canvas, pencil on canvas, dimensions variable.

“Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011,” currently on view at MoMA PS1 in New York, functions as a set of object lessons through which to consider the lasting impacts of “history’s actors.” Curated by Peter Eleey and Ruba Katrib with Jocelyn Miller, Josephine Graf, and Oliver Shultz, the exhibition occupies the entirety of the museum’s three floors and chronologically presents works made during and in response to the Gulf War and the Iraq War by artists in the West, as well as by artists from Iraq and its diasporas. Dotted throughout the exhibition are the visages of the various criminal architects of the wars, from the cartoonish portraits of Bush Sr. and Saddam surrounded by helicopters and tanks in Roger Brown’s Gulf War, 1991, to Luc Tuymans’s more enigmatic 2005 rendering in oil of former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice. The gravity of encountering a face is heightened exponentially in Hanaa Malallah’s She/He Has No Picture, 2019, an installation of portraits made from found photos of the victims of the Amiriyah shelter bombing during the 1991 Gulf War. If Malallah could not locate a photo, she wrote the victim’s name (translated into numeric code) on a blank canvas. Also mixed within this loose grid of faces are brass plaques engraved with the work’s title in Arabic—a phrase used by the shelter for those presumed dead—which reflect, with precision and intent, the imprinting onto the collective psyche of a war often portrayed as having consisted merely of images.

The exhibition mostly assuages the guilty American liberal psyche rather than forcing it to materially recognize its complicity.

In the accompanying catalogue, the curators note that while the exhibition is structured around the “official” beginning and end of the Gulf wars, American intervention in Iraq can be traced to the US-backed coup that helped install the Baath Party in 1963 (and launched the political career of a young Saddam). And although the Iraq War, which commenced with the 2003 US invasion of Baghdad, was formally declared over in 2011, the United States is still engaged with private military contractors in a struggle with the Islamic State in Iraq; recent US airstrikes have renewed calls for America to end its involvement in the region. Before the war had even begun, theorists such as Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard (whose 1991 essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” is reprinted in the catalogue) had addressed the barrage of images, transmitted through television, that came to characterize the bloodless “virtuality” of the fight in Iraq in the early 1990s. Likewise, media works such as Michel Auder’s 1991 Gulf War TV War, edited in 2017, mark the rise of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, a technological advancement that simultaneously offered coverage of the wars and, with its constant stream of pictures of explosions and death, desensitized viewers to their brutality. Auder’s video presages some of the usual suspects in this exhibition, such as Harun Farocki’s War at a Distance, 2003, and Cory Arcangel’s modification of a found computer game Bomb Iraq, 2005, both of which reveal how warfare is perversely entangled with video games or simulations.

Still from Harun Farocki’s War at a Distance, 2003, video, color, sound, 58 minutes.

Several media-activism pieces offer a sobering counterpoint to—and relief from—the psychological and physical distancing of such works. The American collective Deep Dish TV’s twelve-part documentary series Shocking and Awful: A Grassroots Response to War and Occupation, 2004, tracks the destruction of Iraqi heritage and culture and the systematic looting of Iraqi artifacts by Western militaries and details resistance efforts against the Iraq War. In one segment, the journalist and poet Nidal al-Qadhi remarks, “The occupation without a doubt, is a narrative that is attempting to deny the existence of a reality. On the other hand, there’s a counternarrative attempting to establish its own reality.”

Still from Harun Farocki’s War at a Distance, 2003, video, color, sound, 58 minutes.

Still, such welcome interventions could not overcome the combined forces of the Western media apparatus and American military technology, both of which stymied any substantive understanding abroad of the realities faced by those living in Iraq, as well as by those who had fled to surrounding countries, during the Gulf wars. Iraq was once the cultural center of the Middle East, with a sophisticated modernist art movement and cultural institutions, all of which were dealt a harsh blow by the Gulf wars and international sanctions. Sculptures made from scavenged metal and wood by Nuha Al-Radi for her “Embargo Series,” 1990–2003, and dafatir (artists’ books) made by Kareem Risan, Dia al-Azzawi, and Nazar Yahya, are the highlights of the exhibition. Born of necessity and suffused with grief, loss, and longing for home, the scored, burnt, and mottled pages of the dafatir are akin to these Iraqi artists’ private diaries, cataloguing contemporary violence in the Gulf while referencing centuries of traditional Iraqi and Islamic art in the midst of its destruction.

Yet these contributions seem oddly placed, as if afterthoughts to a project that mostly assuages the guilty American liberal psyche rather than forcing it to materially recognize its complicity. Western art is contextualized in the form of protest, while the throttled results of a culture repressed by systematic violence function as testaments to arrested modernity. The asynchrony of artistic development in Iraq is not merely a by-product of history but the result of Western imperialism’s obliteration of the region, a point overshadowed by the curators’ emphasis on Western protest art. Throughout its run, the exhibition, planned years in advance, has been marked by the politics of the present day. This past fall, thousands of Iraqis mobilized against the current regime and Iranian intervention in their nation with the largest protests in Iraq’s modern existence. Several participating artists were prevented from coming to the US by the Trump administration’s restrictive travel policies. The artists Michael Rakowitz and Phil Collins continue to protest the museum’s links, through its trustees, to private prisons and military-security groups (via companies such as BlackRock and Constellis, which took over Blackwater’s facilities)—Rakowitz by asking that his video Return, 2004–, be paused and Collins by withholding his 2002 film, baghdad screentests, depicting Iraqi citizens living under Saddam’s regime. Their demands refuse representation in favor of political action. The museum has declined Rakowitz’s request, denying the reality of its own entanglement with violence on the ground in Iraq.

Indeed, what “Theater of Operations” makes hauntingly clear is the perpetuity of American imperialism. At the time of writing, US aggression against Iran, including the deployment of thousands of troops, stands to further destabilize the region. In the interim, abetted by the very media apparatus that spread their propaganda and camouflaged their deeds, the actors of the Iraq War have recast themselves in the public sphere, assuming new roles as start-up directors, authors, CEOs, and Sunday painters. Watching Mohammed Okab’s testimony, I was reminded of George W. Bush’s portraits of veterans, described by the American cognoscenti as “atonements.” I thought of Paul Bremer, who briefly served as the head of the Coalition Provisional Army in Iraq following the 2003 invasion before disbanding the former Iraqi Army and putting hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of work, allegedly siphoning millions from Iraq’s coffers, and discovering painting; he dryly describes the style of his New England landscapes as “evolving American primitive.” The evidence presented by Okab—and, potentially, the testimony of thousands waiting to be heard, the documents still to be uncovered, the exhibitions yet to be mounted—attests to the effects of neoliberal barbarism. In contrast, Bush’s and Bremer’s paintings, as well as the banality of the media’s response to them, are the objective correlatives of neoliberal barbarism itself. The tragic difference between these approaches to painting may be the key to what “Theater of Operations” lacks—works that reveal the extent of American liberal complicity and how it emerges, in spite of itself. 

Tausif Noor is a writer living in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Momus.