Iraqi Art

A Culture in Exile

Much of contemporary Iraqi art has been produced abroad - the main focus of exiled artists has nevertheless remained on the motherland, as an exhibition in Berlin goes to show. Ariana Mirza recounts here her impressions

photo: Stephan Schmidt
Faisel Laibi Sahi: Coffee Shop in Baghdad, UK, 1984

​​Threadbare oriental carpets are arranged in a circle on the gray concrete floor. On the carpets stand footstools on which small television sets are perched. Walking into the center of the installation, the viewer is overwhelmed by a bewildering flood of information. On the right is a news show on the Al Arabija channel, on the left one on Al Iraqiya. On another screen a cheaply produced, re-enacted action scene can be seen in which hooded kidnappers abduct a victim.

In this installation and elsewhere in the exhibition, the viewer is compelled to question which information actually feeds our own impressions of the current situation in Iraq. Isn't it true that images in the media are our sole source of insight into the alleged reality there?

Iraq, art, and the new media

The artistic preoccupation with media information, with ostensibly objective or propagandistic contents and formats, constitutes one focus of the exhibit currently on in Berlin. The audio-visual media are not only represented as study material, however, but also as a means of artistic expression.

With the help of video portraits, documentaries, video installations, features or fiction film collages, the Iraqi artists presented here try to convey a picture of a homeland that they in some cases left behind decades ago. The viewpoint of the exiles is necessarily a view from outside, a situation that is itself frequently the subject of the works.

As curator Catherine David emphasizes, the exhibition "The Iraqi Equation" does not see itself as the ultimate statement on contemporary Iraqi culture. Instead, it should be regarded as a platform displaying the creative achievements of Iraqi cultural figures. And one can't help but notice that a large part of Iraqi cultural production during the past few decades has taken place in exile.

An inevitable, aggressive dialogue with the West

But the exhibition's organizers have also tried to convey the view from within. Filmmaker Oday Rasheed and artist Salam Pax, who came to the attention of the public through his weblog, are two younger representatives of Iraqi culture who still live and work in their homeland.

photo: Stephan Schmidt
Saieb Khalil: On The Highway To West-Baghdad, Iraq, April 2004

​​A special position within the group of artists living in Iraq is taken up by photographer Latif el Ani. He has been active for decades as a chronicler of everyday life in his country. A few of his black and white documentary photographs from the 1960s are on display here. These images apparently dispense with any form of staging in order to focus in on reality.

In stark contrast to this aggressive commitment to reality are the clichéd images that provide background material for the works of other artists. Some of the exhibits and books on view deal with romanticizing notions of the Orient and the typical western view of Iraq.

For example, the video installation by the exile Iraqi Samir confronts viewers with the changing images of Iraq in the history of western perception. The artist contrasts the Near East of Hollywood fantasy as exemplified by the 1924 movie "The Thief of Baghdad" not only with recent private photos from the album of a middle-class Baghdad family, but also with contradictory TV reports, both historic and current, produced in the West.

Many of the items displayed in Berlin occupy a kind of intermediate position. Not only in the case of the visual artists, but also in the written works, coming to terms with the living situation in the country of exile becomes an important theme.

Thus, this seemingly random combination of painting, photography, literature and media art conveys as a whole above all one thing: that Iraq's cultural scene finds itself in an inevitable, aggressive dialogue with the western world.

Ariana Mirza

© 2005

From now until February 26, 2006, an exhibition entitled "Contemporary Arab Representations. The Iraqi Equation" is on view at Kunstwerke Berlin, Institute for Contemporary Art. It will also be shown in Barcelona from April to July 2006.

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