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Iraq Museum loans retrieved artefacts for the first time for the Iraq Pavilion at Venice Biennale
Small weight measure in the shape of a dove Ancient Babylonian c. 2,000 BCE Stone Returned from Syria in 2008. Courtesy Iraq Museum, Department of Antiquities; Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities; and Ruya Foundation.

BAGHDAD.- The Ruya Foundation announced 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 Als 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 Neo-Babylonian Period (635–539 BCE). 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 from the Netherlands via an Interpol directive in 2010. They include a Babylonian stone weight measure in the shape of a dove and an exquisite clay figurine depicting what is presumed to be a fertility goddess dating from around 5,000 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 land-mapping 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. 1980), 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 Hassan Shaker 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.

Hassan Shaker 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 Shakir Hassan 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 inks, incantation bowls, silver and pottery.

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 present film 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 these two disciplines in an animation 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.

Francis Als
‘Archaic’ will be accompanied by a new project by artist Francis Als, who was born in Antwerp and is based in Mexico City. In February 2016 Als 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 Als’ 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 Als’ first trip to Iraq and, in particular, his interactions with children in refugee camps.

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