Before we discuss the Biennale, could you sketch in what is happening on the art scene in Iraq?
Tamara Chalabi: The very fact that Iraq has a presence in Venice is a huge statement. But Iraq is not unique in this; there are many places dealing with questions of art and creativity in the midst of conflict. It may not sit well with the glitz and glamour of the art world, but art produced in such circumstances goes to the heart of the human condition. In Iraq — be it in Baghdad or Kurdistan or the south — there is no art market to speak of. And the few scattered galleries are not galleries in the internationally understood sense of the word. They don’t represent specific artists and they don’t understand the role that a gallery assumes in taking on an artist.
Then there are the art schools, which are state-run, their curriculums unchanged since the 1970s. They function like turn-of-the-century beaux-arts schools. And even that style of teaching has been degraded because of the security situation: you can’t have nude models for life drawing, for example. One thing that has changed since [the US-led invasion of Iraq in] 2003 is that you now see lots of angry, rebellious students, all with an interesting sense of fashion, and all at war with the faculty. That is a very healthy thing. But the faculty remains bureaucratic, almost Stalinist, completely cut off from trends in contemporary art today.
Left: Salam Atta Sabri, Letters from Baghdad, 2010-2012. Pencil on paper. 29.7 x 21 cm. Right: Salam Atta Sabri, Letters From Baghdad, 2010-2012. Pencil on paper. 29.7 x 21 cm. Images copyright Salam Atta Sabri. Courtesy the artist
You use the word Stalinist — and the way that you describe Iraq’s art schools is reminiscent of the last days of the USSR, when art students were generally anti-Soviet and expressed their dissatisfaction through their clothes, their attitude and their music.
Iraq’s story is many-layered — the war and all that followed — but people often forget that for more than three decades Iraq was a totalitarian country where everything was run by the state along socialist lines. The events of 2003 changed the upper stratum, but below that nothing has changed. The state apparatus is still there, and if you are not inside it then it is working against you. So things such as the national art curriculum are unchangeable until further notice.
The effect of that must be to drive ambitious or experimental artists underground?
Yes, and if there is a happy side to this, it is that the chaos creates spaces in which people can try something different. Yet we find, in our hunt for artists, that many of them are extremely reticent about showing their work. Take Salam Atta Sabri, one of the artists selected for the pavilion. I knew him through his day job as director of Baghdad’s Museum of Modern Art — but I had no idea that he drew. He did his drawings late at night in his apartment, in a part of town that was the scene of violent street war. He worked with his daughter’s crayons and pencils, drawing away to keep himself calm, to keep his head together. There is something neurotic but also very moving and honest about Salam’s work. He is a real discovery.
Tamara Chalabi. Photographed by Mathias Depardon
You mentioned the ‘hunt for artists’. How do you winkle out the good ones when there is so little infrastructure, and so much timidity on the part of the artists themselves?
We put the word out. We used the official channels to start with — the galleries, the art colleges and the professional associations — but we also made phone calls, stuck posters up, used word of mouth. We emailed and posted on Facebook (which is very popular in Iraq). We have energetic people manning our office in Baghdad. It was just a question of trawling, of collecting information about artists, asking them to send in portfolios. Now we have an expanding database of more than 300 artists.
Haider Jabbar, Case 1303, 2014. Drawing. 15 x 10cm. Courtesy the artist
Are all the artists featured in the pavilion drawn from that database?
Three of the five were on the database; Salam was one of them. Then there is Akam Shex Hadi, a Kurdish photographer whose work is a response to ISIS. The black ribbon in his pictures looks like some kind of snake, but it turns out to be the ISIS flag. I would say his work is above all theatrical, because it is so carefully staged and choreographed.
The third is Haider Jabbar, who painted the very haunting watercolours of heads. He is the youngest artist in the show. He was very troubled by the horrendous events of last summer, when 1,700 Iraqi cadets from Camp Speicher were killed by ISIS forces. He was deeply affected, and started doing this series of heads. His aim was to do 1,700 of them. He left Iraq because he couldn’t bear it any more. He now works in Turkey, and is living on a grant provided by our foundation.
The curator of the pavilion, Philippe Van Cauteren of SMAK, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent, came across the work of Latif Al Ani at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. His photographs were done mostly between the 1950s and the 1980s. His work is about an Iraq that is no longer present; it is an archive of memory.
Then there is Rabab Ghazoul, who is a performance artist based in Cardiff. Her piece for the pavilion deals with the Iraq inquiry [headed by Sir John Chilcot]. There is that seam of testimony in all the artists selected, and that notion is extremely important. Venice is an opportunity for a kind of bridging — between Iraq and the rest of the world, and between artists inside Iraq and artists of the Iraqi diaspora. We are trying to be that bridge.
How do you understand the phrase Invisible Beauty, the title that Philippe Van Cauteren has given the show? It could be understood to mean — as we have been saying — that art is happening in Iraq, but it’s hard to get to see it. Or it could be a comment on the art exhibited: that the beauty — in, say, the semi-abstract severed heads and the ISIS snake — isn’t found on the surface of the work.
Those interpretations are both valid. I also think it is a comment that beauty can be extracted even from ugliness, even from pain. In the midst of destruction, the human spirit will always be able to find something to render in a way that is beautiful. Latif was literally hidden from view; then there is the invisibility of the struggle of the communities portrayed by the Kurdish photographer — I mean communities such as the Yazidis, who are in danger of the invisibility of extinction. With Haider, as you say, it is about pain and anguish that has been transformed by art into something that, without idealising the anguish, is beautiful and potentially healing.
Latif Al Ani, Tourism Promotion Film, circa 1962. Courtesy the artist
Why did you bring in Philippe Van Cauteren to curate the show? Did you feel that you needed a European eye on it?
It’s not about a European eye. It’s not the case at all that a curator needs to be from the part of the world they are curating — but the issue seems to crop up in connection with the Middle East. No one questions it when a Greek woman curates the Danish pavilion. If you are trying to build a bridge, it is interesting to bring in someone who is a complete outsider.
We looked at curators from all corners of the globe, from Japan to Europe and back. And here’s the thing: there are no curators in Iraq; the very term ‘curator’ is alien. There isn’t a word for it in Arabic. You have to say ‘art expert’ or ‘art producer’ — in the sense of the producer of a movie. If you look in the dictionary under ‘curator’ you will get amin mathaf, which means ‘treasurer of the museum’. So the idea of an Iraqi pavilion is a risk, whoever you turn to.
But Philippe has an incredible ability to get to the essence of the story. He is extremely engaged with artists. So the studio visits we made all over Iraq were very powerful and dramatic for the artists themselves, because he believes in the role of the artist and was able to push them further. He gave a talk on contemporary art while he was in Baghdad. It was meant to be a short PowerPoint presentation about the things he likes, but 250 artists and art-world people turned up to listen, and the session lasted all day. Nothing like that has happened since the 1970s. One of the attendees, a lecturer from an art college, said afterwards: ‘We thought contemporary art was some peripheral movement happening at the fringes of art in the West.’
And in the end, Philippe’s proposal was the most compelling; it seemed to fit so well. He was appointed in April last year, before ISIS (I keep talking about ISIS because they changed everything), but his plan seemed to have an even greater resonance afterwards. We had a really wobbly moment — can we even do a pavilion? We decided that we must do it because it is another form of resistance to these people whose first act is always to destroy cultural monuments.
So you see the Iraq pavilion at the Venice Biennale as an act of defiance directed at the murderous philistinism of ISIS?
I do. I really do.
Main image at top: Akam Shex Hadi, Untitled, 2014-15. B+W digital print on Innova-Baryth Smoothgloss paper.
30 x 45 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Interview by Jonathan Bastable. This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine. Subscribe here
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