Iraq Museum loans ancient and retrieved artefacts for the first time for the
Iraq Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale
The Ruya Foundation is pleased to announce further details for the National Pavilion of Iraq at the 57th Venice Biennale in May 2017. The exhibition, ‘Archaic’, will show the work of eight Modern and contemporary Iraqi artists in dialogue with 40 ancient Iraqi artefacts drawn from the Iraq Museum and spanning six millennia, from the Neolithic Age to the Neo-Babylonian Period. Most of these objects have never left Iraq, excluding a few that were recently recovered after the 2003 lootings of the Museum. The exhibition will also be accompanied by a new commission by internationally acclaimed Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs on the subject of war and the artist.
‘Archaic’ will be the third occasion on which the Ruya Foundation has commissioned the National Pavilion of Iraq at Venice. The tension in the term ‘Archaic’ is drawn from its multivalent references to the ancient and primordial, as well as what is currently out of use. The exhibition will draw out this tension to emphasise its particular relevance to Iraq, a country whose existing political, administrative, social and economic reality is arguably as ‘archaic’ as its ancient heritage. The exhibition will be co-curated by Tamara Chalabi (Chair and Co-Founder of the Ruya Foundation) and Paolo Colombo (Art Adviser at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art). The curators have said: “In exploring Iraq’s artistic heritage from the Neolithic Age to the present, ‘Archaic’ will also explore the different ways in which Iraq’s ancient past has affected its Modern and contemporary visual languages, examining the opportunities and restrictions presented to the nation by its immense ancient inheritance, in the context of today’s fragile reality.”
There will be 40 ancient objects on display, from as far back as the Halaf Period (6,100–5,100 BCE) and as far forward as the Parthian Period (247 BCE–224 CE). Artefacts in stone, glass and clay will incorporate cylinder and stamp seals, cuneiform tablets, medical objects, a musical instrument and figurines of animals, deities, people and boats, as well as everyday objects such as jugs, sieves and toys. A number of objects were returned to the Museum via Interpol in 2008 and 2010, from territories including the Netherlands, Syria and the United States. They include a Babylonian stone weight measure in the shape of a duck and an exquisite clay figurine depicting what is presumed to be a fertility goddess dating from around 6,000 BCE. The artefact selection was made by co-curator Tamara Chalabi in collaboration with Qais Hussein Rashid, the Director of the Department of Antiquities at the Iraq Museum, his team and archaeologist Lamia Gailani Werr.
Other intriguing highlights will include a contract of adoption from the Babylonian Period, which is remarkable for the fact that both tablet and envelope have remained intact together, as well as decorative stamps used by each witness to sign their names. Also displayed will be a distinctive cylinder seal from the Akkadian Period depicting three parallel scenes from Gilgamesh and a circular clay school text from the Babylonian Period that was used to teach writing. The ancient artefacts will allow the exhibition to examine the archaic as a signifier for universal themes that are a precursor to any civilization. The curators have identified seven such themes and each contemporary work can be seen through the prism of one of them. They are water, earth, the hunt, writing, music, conflict and exodus. All works will be displayed in custom-designed vitrines, mirroring the museum-style display associated with the exhibition of antiquities, as well as the landmapping practices of archaeologists. They will also mean that each presentation can be read as an individual chapter as well as in the wider context of ‘Archaic’. The exhibition space – a historically listed, disused library, added during a 19th-century neo-gothic expansion of the Palazzo – will also echo the ‘archaic’ theme.
The work of eight Iraqi artists will be on display. Of the six living artists, five will create new work for the Pavilion. Many artists working in Iraq today continue to abide by an orthodox aesthetic tradition that has been limited by mid-century education trends and the lack of cultural exchange in Iraq in recent decades. All of the Ruya Foundation’s work seeks to nurture and promote artists who move beyond these paradigms and as such installation, video and photography will be represented alongside more traditional media such as painting and sculpture. Works by contemporary artists Sherko Abbas (b. 1978), Sadik Kwaish Alfraji (b. 1960), Ali Arkady (b. 1982), Luay Fadhil (b. 1982), Nadine Hattom (b. 1980) and Sakar Sleman (b. 1979) will interplay with works by two Modern Iraqi artists, Jewad Selim (1919–1961) and Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925–2004).
As pioneers of the Iraqi Modern tradition, Selim and Al Said were amongst the first to strive for a new kind of Iraqi art in the 20th century, that would both engage with the European avant-garde and create a distinctly Iraqi vernacular responding to the country’s unique ancient heritage.
Painter and sculptor Jewad Selim is widely recognised as the father of Iraqi Modern art and was highly influential across the region as a whole. He was one of the first Iraqi artists to study fine art in Europe and his experience at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1930s London meant that he combined Modern European influences with initial artistic training at the Iraq Museum. Selim wanted to create a new vernacular language for Iraq and is known for paintings that combined abstract forms with Mesopotamian iconography, as well as the Liberty Monument in Baghdad, which celebrates the 1958 revolution. Two important Selim works will be shown, including The Hen Seller (1951), which has not been displayed in public since its first showing in Iraq in the 1950s.
Shakir Hassan Al Said was a painter, sculptor and writer and a student of Selim’s. He too was deeply concerned with finding a new language for Iraqi art and together the pair established the Baghdad Modern Art Group in 1951. This group reflected a growing nationalist and anti-colonial sentiment. A number of Al Said’s paintings from the 1960s will be on display. He developed an intense interest in the divine and turned towards Sufism, abstraction and a fascination with the Arabic script. It is noteworthy that in 2003, alongside the lootings at the Iraq Museum, the Saddam Art Centre was also looted and the Selim and Al Said galleries emptied. This act represented a violation of uniquely Iraqi heritage and it is telling that international notice of the lootings has focused on Mesopotamian objects, which can be said to be items of world heritage.
The exhibition will display the connection between contemporary and Modern art in Iraq, showing how that connection can further elucidate the relationship of both to the archaic. Both Nadine Hattom and Sakar Sleman will present new installation works. Hattom’s will take its point of departure as her own family heritage and the significance of water, while Sleman’s will look at the significance of the earth and its connection to people and to herself. Hattom is an Iraqi-Australian artist, based in Berlin. Her practice is based in photography and sculpture and brings together everyday objects to reflect on language, identity and representation. Her Pavilion commission will explore the traditions of the Mandaean community, a religious group from southern Iraq to which her family belongs.
The Mandaeans particularly revere John the Baptist and many of their cultural practices relate to water. Hattom’s installation will explore this theme through objects that evoke the memories of her father and mother as well as the collective Mandaean memory. They will include photographs from a family album, inks and clay.
Sakar Sleman’s installation will use soil and stone from the Kurdish mountains near her home to create a diorama of the world according to the artist. It will serve as a meditation on nature, and her relationship to it, as the origin of mankind. The abstractness of Sleman’s work, seen in her recurring references to the circular shape, is also linked to her preoccupation with women and their unheard voices in society. Sleman is based in Kurdistan and her work often combines text and slogans with land installation and found objects to focus on political and socio-cultural day-to-day life in Iraq.
Three of the contemporary artists will incorporate film into their works, one focusing on the
transmission of historical information in Iraq, another engaged with traditional writing practices and the other focused on music and travel in Iraq. Sadik Kwaish Alfraji creates artist books and animations. His Pavilion work will combine drawings with an animation in an installation that interrogates the way in which Iraqi school text books relay the narratives of the country’s past. Figures will walk through the ages and across manuscripts in the film, which will also touch upon fable, archaeology, religious lore and the hunt. Alfraji left Iraq in the 1990s after remaining in the country and producing work throughout the Iran-Iraq War. He is now based in the Netherlands and though greatly influenced by the European tradition, particularly the German Expressionists, his work retains a focus on Iraq.
By contrast, Luay Fadhil’s film will be concerned with a different Iraqi tradition for the transmission of written information, an archaic practice that continues to exist in Baghdad today. Scribes set up makeshift offices outside public buildings to draw up official documents for visitors and passers-by.
The film will focus on a man who visits one of these scribes daily in an attempt to communicate with his recently deceased wife, uniting Iraq’s present with its ancient history as the birthplace of writing. Fadhil is based in Baghdad and began working in film in 2009. Since then he has won awards at the Gulf Film Festival and the Dubai International Film Festival, amongst others.
Sherko Abbas is a multimedia artist who works in video, performance, text and installation. Abbas is based in Sulamaniya but the principal footage for his installation was taken by his sister, a cellist in the Iraqi National Orchestra, on the occasion of its visit to the Kennedy Centre in Washington in December 2003. A split-screen presentation will display rehearsal footage in conjunction with scenes depicting the travel methods required to reach the United States. Numerous methods were used for the journey, including the use of military planes, addressing ideas around nomadism. The vitrine installation will also include sheet music, programmes and other historical records of this cultural exchange, which took place at a time that was particularly pertinent to relations between the two countries. The US invasion of Iraq had taken place in March of that year.
The final contemporary artist in the selection is Ali Arkady, a photojournalist who has been reporting since 2010 on the volatile political realities of Iraq and has reported regularly from the front line since the 2014 ISIS attacks. A collection of his latest works from the ongoing Mosul campaign against ISIS will be on display, divided into three sections: images depicting how war affects soldiers, images depicting how war affects the land and images depicting how war affects civilians, focusing particularly on migration and thus being especially pertinent to the ongoing refugee crisis.
‘Archaic’ will be accompanied by a new project by artist Francis Alÿs, who was born in Antwerp and is based in Mexico City. In February 2016 Alÿs undertook a trip to Iraq facilitated by the Ruya Foundation in which he visited refugee camps in the north of the country. He followed this with an extraordinary visit in November 2016 to the Mosul front line in the company of a Kurdish battalion, during the Liberation of Mosul offensive. The main line of enquiry for this new installation will be the role of the artist in war. The work will incorporate drawings, paintings, photographs and notes from Alÿs’ experience in Mosul. A video work will feature people on the move, against a backdrop of coalition bombing, continuing an investigation into the artist’s role as witness that was instigated during Alÿs’ first trip to Iraq and, in particular, his interactions with children in refugee camps.
About the National Pavilion of Iraq
Curators: Tamara Chalabi and Paolo Colombo
Commissioner: Ruya Foundation
Local commissioner: Vittorio Urbani
‘Archaic’ will run 13 May – 26 November 2017
The exhibition will be housed in the third floor of:
Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, Grand Canal, San Marco 2847, Venice
Nearest Vaporetto: Accademia (the palazzo is on the other side of the bridge)
Opening hours: 10am – 6pm every day except Mondays
Press preview: Wednesday 10 May, 11am – 1pm
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue published by Mousse, including essays by Zainab Bahrani, Roger Cook, Venetia Porter, Nada Shabout and Robert Storr, amongst others.
About the Ruya Foundation
The Ruya Foundation is an Iraqi registered non-profit, non-governmental organisation founded in 2012 with the aim of aiding and enriching culture in Iraq, and building cultural bridges with the world. Ruya’s initial goal is to promote culture in Iraq at a time when priorities are focused elsewhere and to build a platform that will enable Iraqis in the arts, the young in particular, to benefit from, and participate in international events. In addition to supporting local projects, Ruya’s aim is to create a network of intercultural events that can contribute to the development of civil society in Iraq. It is also committed to nurturing a multicultural dialogue through the arts. Ruya initiates and commissions creative projects in the visual, audiovisual and performing arts. Ruya was the commissioner of the
National Pavilion of Iraq for the 56th and 55th Venice Biennales in May 2013 and May 2015. The 2015 Pavilion exhibition, ‘Invisible Beauty’, transferred to S.M.A.K. (Museum for Contemporary Art), Ghent (2016) and the Erbil Citadel, Iraq (2017). Ruya collaborated with international artist Ai Weiwei on a major publication Traces of Survival: Drawings by refugees in Iraq selected by Ai Weiwei (2015). In 2015 Ruya launched the first drama therapy project in Baghdad, supported by the Prince Claus Fund, and in 2016 it launched the first publically accessible online database of contemporary Iraqi artists, which can be found at www.ruyafoundation.org/en/artists. In addition, the Ruya website is a live platform for Iraqi art. Interviews with emerging and established artists both in Iraq and those based in the diaspora are published regularly to encourage dialogue, the exchange of ideas and promote the possibility of collaboration. In January 2017 Ruya launched a new educational publishing initiative, Ruya Notebooks.