In a re-run from the 55th Venice Biennale 2013, “Welcome to Iraq” exhibition comes from the 2013 Iraqi Pavilion to South London Gallery, Peckham until 1 June 2014. 11 Iraqi artists comment on their home country where they work and live, encompassing a range of art practices from video art and cartooning to sculpture and painting.
It’s like someone might actually live there
The ambience of warm Middle-Eastern style hospitality wouldn’t surprise anyone in the least when they’ve come to an exhibition entitled “Welcome to Iraq“; immediately through the door, one can hardly wait to accept the invitation to settle into the very comfy-looking sofas and chairs, positioned as vantage points for taking in the artwork. For those wanting more personal reflection, each sitting area has a laptop for watching videos, stacks of books to peruse, or the opportunity to simply relax surrounded by art.
Having never actually been to the country myself, perhaps this is how one might imagine an Iraqi living room. Come to think of it, the gallery looks very much like an ordinary living room in almost any country but here is more than one reception room for receiving guests, and the sofas are covered with black and red fabric native to Kurdistan. There’s even classic Iraqi chai on offer, served in the usual dainty petal-thin glass tea cups.
Curator Jonathan Watkins from IKON gallery in Birmingham directed this set-up which offers a picture of The Everyday for the average Jamal living in Iraq right now and it also suggests a leisurely pace for guests to take in the artwork around the gallery. Astute observers might even notice that the layout of the exhibition is loosely aligned with the map of Iraq, starting with Bassim Al-Shaker’s oil paintings of seemingly “unbroken tradition” in the marshlands region (the south-eastern corner between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers).
The history of this place is very different to al-Shaker’s idyllic and misleading imagery: in 1991, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes as a measure of collective punishment, destroying livelihoods, killing wildlife and displacing thousands of people. Only recently has some modicum of normality begun to return: following the US invasion of 2003, the dams were damaged, allowing water to replenish the marshlands once again, though it will take many years before the old way of life can possibly resume.
Towards the middle of the gallery/map is the work of Baghdadi artists, including a sculpture by Furat al Jamil, films from Hareth Alhomaam and Ali Samiaa, and a selection of Abdul Raheem Yassir’s political cartoons from the past decade. Akeel Khreef’s furniture made of recycled machine parts sits easily next to graffiti-style paintings by Kadhim Nwir, surprisingly well-suited to the traditional-looking sitting rooms in the centre of the gallery.
Continuing along the map, the northeast corner of Iraqi Kurdistan is covered by Jamal Penjweny’s short films and a set of photographs featuring former dictator Saddam Hussein as a mask for Iraqi folks in their homes and workplaces. These are adjacent to quirky domestic household objects painted by Cheeman Ismaeel which are no longer useful in their original capacity; as in Ismaeel’s “our little screen” (2010), the TV that no longer does any of the talking but now carries an enigmatic message written directly on its face.
Upstairs, we find an installation over two rooms from WAMI, in a rare creative collaboration between Iraqi artists. Yassen Wami and Hashim Taeeh, both from Basra in the southern-most tip of Iraq, use cardboard and found items to create whole households of furniture that wouldn’t hold the weight of a bird without collapsing. The rooms are complete with the requisite decor that every flatpack crib needs: knick-knacks, cuckoo clocks, books and candlesticks; all counterfeit, all compostable and folded up, the whole thing fits in a trunk.
Besides all the cushy salons, what ties up everything neatly for me are the cartoons by Abdul Raheem Yassir. Political and poignant at the same time, each A4 sheet gets straight to the punchline in a language that anyone, no matter where s/he’s from, can understand. My personal favourite is the sketch of a journalist holding out a microphone to interview a drowning man, perhaps a resident from the aforementioned marshlands. Okay, maybe not hilarious but certainly on-target and could speak to any number of nations under conflict, inundated with international journalists, activists, NGOs and art tourists.
Finally, here are two crucial points about this exhibition: Jonathan Watkins, the curator for “Welcome to Iraq” makes the first in his exhibition tour/talk: none of the artists here are “responding to the expectations of the Western audience of what their art should be”. I admit in my naïveté, I thought I might see something here about the American invasions or other Western influence on Iraq’s culture, but as Watkins asserts, it wouldn’t occur to these artists to make such work, let alone imagine showing it in “the sophisticated art world of Venice or London”.
Ironically, some focus remains on the regime of the late Saddam Hussein, dead almost a decade yet somehow he (or his influence) is still current in the lives and minds of many Iraqis (Penjwany, Al-Shaker). Other works examine local ecological and environmental issues in modern-day Mesopotamia, similar to the concerns in no small number of the world’s nations right now (Al-Shaker, WAMI, Khreef).
Secondly, although many of the artists show work internationally, this is not the work of exiles or ex-pats viewing their country from the outside; it is important to note each of the 11 artists is currently living and working within Iraq. Each speaks from direct experience or personal history, through contemporary means, about what directly affects them and their local communities in the here and now. If you want that other kind of political art, Watkins suggests, “look outside of Iraq, not inside Iraq”.
For Watkins, Furat al Jamil’s “Honey Pot” (2005/13) epitomises what Iraqi art by artists working from inside the country is all about. Three honeycomb frames are suspended above and dripping sweet syrup over the pieces of a broken ancient jar from Mesopotamia. Watkins asserts that this piece “symbolises a broken culture from her point of view; it’s not simply sad and hopeless but [the viewer] can imagine some kind of healing balm running through the honey; something natural which can heal what is broken by man.” He continues to say that in this work by al Jamil sits the key to the whole exhibition…
It’s a sign that where there’s life, there’s hope
Artists presenting work: Hareth Alhomaam, Bassim Al-Shaker, Cheeman Ismaeel, Furat al Jamil, Akeel Khreef, Kadhim Nwir, Jamal Penjweny, Abdul Raheem Yassir, Ali Samiaa, WAMI (Yaseen Wami, Hashim Taeeh)
More links and information
- “Welcome to Iraq” homepage on South London Gallery’s website
- View/download ‘Welcome to Iraq’ SLG – exhibition guide [PDF]
- Talk by Jonathan Watkins, curator of “Welcome to Iraq” [SoundCloud, 55 mins] – could be downloaded as a podcast to be listened to during your visit
- Picture gallery: “Welcome to Iraq” at South London Gallery on GalleriesNow.
- South London Gallery also has a lovely little cafe with lots of natural light serving tea/coffee, light lunches and desserts, cakes or pastries.
Reviews of “Welcome to Iraq”
- Review: “New exhibition shows country in whole new light” by Zoe Pilger, the Independent – 17 March 2014 – “fascinating…but does it tell the whole story…there is too little direct engagement with the political situation”
- Review: “In this uneven but absorbing show, eleven very different artists… reflect the breadth of artistic activity in the country” by Ben Luke, The Evening Standard – 4/5 stars – 31 March 2014 – “…featuring Iraqi people in humdrum settings holding a picture of Saddam over their faces. They reflect on the regime’s lasting stench and the relative absence of imagery of ordinary Iraqi people. This show is an important corrective.”
- Overview: “Welcome to Iraq” by MK Palomar in Studio International online magazine – a re-staging of the exhibition at 55th Venice Biennale 2013
- Review: “I walked into a memorial…of experiences. And all efforts were made to make me feel comfortable in that space” by Faten Hakimi for Trebuchet Magazine – 7 May 2014 – “…I realised why the installation was set up to feel homely and intimate…the endeavour to create a sense of security was nothing more than a prop; an intentional illusion.”
“Welcome to Iraq” at 55th Venice Biennale 2013
- Read more about “Welcome to Iraq” at the Iraqi Pavilion at 55th Venice Biennale 2013
- Review: “Welcome to Iraq and Otherwise Occupied – Iraq and Palestine at the 2013 Venice Biennale” by Daniella Rose King in Ibraaz.org – 27 June 2013 – “…there was an effort to subvert certain expectations and viewing experiences, by opening up spaces for interaction and participation”
Exhibition details: Welcome to Iraq is on from 15 March – 1 June 2014 at South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UH. Free admission. Disabled/step-free access.