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28/4/2006 - 25/6/2006

Contemporary Arab Representations. The Iraqi Equation

Contemporary Arab Representations is a long-term project which includes presentations of works by authors from different disciplines (visual arts, architecture, literature, thought, film), seminars, performances and publications. The aim is to enable production, circulation and exchanges between the different cultural centres of the Arab world and the rest of the world. The project looks at the complex dimensions of aesthetics in relation to social and political situations to acquire a more precise knowledge of what is happening now in various zones of the Arab world. If the first and second part focused on Beirut/Lebanon and Cairo/Egypt respectively, this third stage of the project turns its attention to Iraq.

Since the Gulf War and the invasion and occupation of the country, the images and incomplete news (with omissions and manipulation) that reach us from Iraq through the mass media have to a large extent simplified and distorted representations and information about what is an extremely complex political, cultural and social situation.

The dramatic situation in the country makes it difficult to gain direct access to people, and makes any attempt to make a serene appreciation of contemporary productions derisory if not downright obscene. But that doesn’t make it any less urgent to bring together, discuss and disseminate the “debris and diasporas” that bear witness, in Iraq and throughout the world, to the rich, powerful nature of what was one of the most dynamic modern cultures in the Arab world in the 20th century.

The Iraqi Equation does not, therefore, propose an “exhibition” of modern or contemporary Iraqi art; rather, it provides a platform for information, meeting and debate open to artists, film-makers, authors, analysts and activists able to throw some light on the historic, political, social and cultural context that has led to the present situation and to suggest possible ways out of the nightmare that is everyday life for the Iraqi people today. The aim is, then, to put events, images and ideas into perspective to step back from the immediate horizon of destruction, confusion and chaos, a situation deliberately maintained to the benefit of a few, and to gather testimonies and actions enabling us to make an inventory of a complex inheritance (Mesopotamia, cradle of civilisation, but also modern Iraqi culture and monuments) and to encourage possible projects with Iraqis, both inside the country and elsewhere.

With this view in mind, the project presents four artistic situations based on work by Samir, Faisel Laibi, Talal Refit and Nedim Kufi, whose biographies and productions provide testimony to the diversity of histories and expressions that mark the Iraqi diaspora. These artists also took part in building this platform, proposing specific works or interventions: Samir with his film Forget Baghdad (2003), a documentary he dedicated to the role of Iraqi Jews in cultural and political life in the country up to the late-1950s, through the lives of certain leading figures: the writers Samir Naqqash, Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael, Moshe Houri and the film theorist Ella Habiba Shohat; Faisel Laibi, allowing his 1984 painting Coffee Shop in Baghdad, a very well-known work that has become a symbol for many Iraqis, to be enlarged to the size of a mural creating a virtual agora, or temporary public square, in the Fundació Antoni Tàpies exhibition space; Talal Refit, building a giant bench entitled Democracy (2005), drawing his inspiration from the traditional benches found in cafés in Baghdad; Nedim Kufi, fixing to the wall scrolls of texts and images, that were the preparatory stages for his on-line art and cultural diary Daftar, available on the Internet since 2004, providing an excellent introduction to the complexity and paradoxes of the images and references that play a role in building modern and contemporary Iraqi art.

The project also devotes a large space to photographic and video images, and television recordings from several Iraqi networks, which welcome visitors, giving them an idea of the diversity of faces and situations in Iraq, contrasting with the dramatic, recurring images of the war and the stereotypes that European media usually help to propagate. A selection of recent films and videos documents different aspects of the situation in Iraq, and the reactions and opinions of Iraqis from different social groups: a first programme shows “returns to Baghdad” filmed by Iraqis who had left the country in the more or less recent past (Sinan Antoon, Tariq Hashim, Maysoon Pachachi, Baz Shamoun); another features news video clips made by one of the most famous Iraqi bloggers, Salam Pax, highlighting the leading role played by the new media in informing and forming perceptions of this war, a very different one in this respect from the 1991 “war without images”. A third programme is devoted to Hana Al-Bayaty’s films of the latest meeting of the Iraqi opposition in exile in London in 2003, three months before the war began, and the sessions of the BRussells Tribunal to gather testimonies about the violence and war crimes committed by the coalition (and the government that acts under its authority) against the civil population. A series of portraits of leading Iraqi cultural figures by Sawsan Darwaza and Koutaiba Al-Janabi also provides a new vision of the diversity of talents and discourses to be found in the country.

Finally, a series of slideshows made from more than three hundred Iraqi archive images stored in the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut provide a comparative human, cultural, geographic and urban view of Iraq from the 1930s to the late-1970s: anonymous images and portraits in black and white and coloured portraits (children, couples, soldiers) produced by studios in towns and villages from all over the country; artistic montages by Murad Dagestani; images of cabarets, picnics and cultural life; archaeological sites and historic monuments; views of Baghdad in the 1960s by Latif Al-Ani, testifying to the modern beauty of the monuments and infrastructure in a city that was one of the first in the region to become developed, in harsh contrast with the images of ruin and destruction recorded in more recent documentaries.

At the heart of the project are, of course, the authors, artists and other guests. Public readings, testimonies and analyses proposed by the various participants will be exhaustively recorded to form the basis for an archive open to the public, and which will be built up as the project develops.

Images produced during the interventions of the many participants in this forum, and many more from websites and blogs devoted to Iraq on the Internet will also be gradually added to create new slideshows and image banks to be presented as part of the project.