As soon as I heard the concept behind the Ruya Foundation‘s Iraq Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, I wanted to visit. The idea of reflecting on the dialogue of archaeological objects (some looted and subsequently returned) and artists was immediately appealing to a Middle Eastern archaeologist (me!), who has found creative collaborations immensely inspiring and refreshing as a way to think through the past’s roles in the contemporary world (you can see some of this work here and here). On 7th November, I got the chance to visit the exhibition; I stayed for nearly 3 hours and returned again for just under an hour the following morning. In spite of some frustrations concerning display and audience experience, I was not disappointed by the content. In what follows, I will explore some aspects that I believe could be improved and celebrate the installations and elements that spoke most to me.
The pavilion itself was located away from the main biennale venues in the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti on the Grand Canal.
The exhibition was in a beautiful library space on the third floor of the palazzo. To some extent this traditional space leant itself well to the theme of ‘archaic’: juxtaposing and challenging the relationships between old and new. In addition, some of the displays in the alcoves made playful use of the space.
The main downside of this space was the strip-lighting overhead, which cast horrible reflections on the glass of the cases, often making it difficult to view objects and installations.
The installations were displayed in eleven ‘vitrines’, which according to the leaflet and catalogue were chosen deliberately by the curators to create a museum-like atmosphere, as well as material down the sides of the space in the alcoves. Each vitrine was provided with a very short label, giving the name of the artist and the title of the work, in English only; the artefacts were provided with some additional information, which is discussed in more detail below.
In addition, there were photocopies of the press release available (in Arabic, English and Italian) and a glossy leaflet that also contained a plan of the space. The press release and leaflet contained basic biographical information about the artists as well as short descriptions of the installations (both had the same written information). I feel it would have been useful for more of this context to have been incorporated into the display itself (I give some examples below) – not everyone took a leaflet or press release and nor was it clear that these provided needed context.
Curiously, the plan provided in the accompanying leaflet only shows the location of the vitrines and makes no mention at all of the alcove material. This is a great shame as not only was the display of this material sometimes very creative in the space, as noted above, but also key to the exhibition.
Not being on the plan meant that there was potential for this material to be overlooked, for example, I wonder how many visitors left not really understanding the significance of Jewad Selim because they had not watched the (wonderful!) archive video from the Iraqi Broadcasting TV and Cinema.
This issue was compounded by one pair of installations (shelves of pots) having no labels at all – were these part of the exhibition? I only saw one person looking at these, so it seems that other people may have been similarly confused.
It may well be that as an archaeologist who is particularly concerned with public engagement that I am coming at these issues with a different set of priorities in mind than someone designing an art exhibition for the Biennale, but it seems to me that with a situation that is as delicate as Iraq (and the Middle East in general) that we should always try to communicate as clearly as possible with our audiences, especially here when there were so many important stories being told. A picture (or an art installation) does not necessarily speak a thousand words: it has been demonstrated by MacManus (2000) that when additional written information is provided 71% of visitors notice something that they would not have observed otherwise. Certainly, I had ‘lightbulb’ moments on reading the catalogue after seeing the exhibition (and I probably came with more background knowledge than most). I am not necessarily saying that everything needs thorough explanation, nor am I advocating spoon-feeding an audience; there were some moments, for example Luay Fadhil’s film ‘The Scribe’, where the horrific dawning realization of the viewer that his wife is dead would have been ruined by knowing this in advance (and apologies for that spoiler to anyone who has not seen it). I do, in fact, believe there is a strong case to be made for making your audience think, but I do also feel that providing a bit of help and a few prompts along the way might not go amiss and might have more impact in the long run.
The exhibition begins with the artefacts case. This case contained 40 objects from sites across Iraq and spanning the Neolithic (Tell Halaf – c 6500 BC; case no. 22 (cat. no. 1)) to the late-post Sasanian period (6th-8th century AD; case no. 5 (cat. no. 39)) and everything in between (NB: the numbers in the case, unfortunately, do not correspond with those in the catalogue, so both have been given here). Four of these objects were looted and have subsequently been returned: a plaque of man holding a stringed, musical instrument, returned from the US in 2010 (case no. 18; cat. no. 40); a statuette of a person with hands folded in prayer, returned from Syria in 2008 (no. 20; cat. no. 7); a mother goddess, returned from the Netherlands in 2010 (case no. 22; cat. no. 1); and a duck-shaped weight, returned from Syria in 2008 (case no. 26; cat. no. 9). These objects sat alongside their unlooted friends and while noted in the accompanying laminated notes, were not made to stand out. This was good to see and felt like a positive way of rehabilitating these traumatised objects. My critique would be that it was not clear why these objects were chosen i.e. why choose looted objects as well as unlooted objects and why choose the overall assemblage. This is not to say that powerful and important stories could not be told with these objects, rather that they weren’t. The case was provided with laminated sheets that gave the basic information about the individual objects (site name, date, simple description), which was useful and used by numerous visitors while I was there, but there was nothing to give the overarching story that these objects were intended to convey. The accompanying catalogue makes this clearer by explaining that there are themes in this assemblage that are reflected in the modern art installations (water, earth, hunt, writing, music, conflict and exodus; p. 5), but it cannot be assumed that everyone will (or can afford to) buy the catalogue, nor that they will read it while in the space (I read it afterwards). The upshot was that this case did not feel fully incorporated into the rest of the exhibition. A short panel by the case or another laminated sheet could easily have solved this problem.
One of the great treats of this exhibition was the opportunity to see in person some of the art of Jewad Selim. Although he is the acknowledged father of Iraqi modern art, he is not as well known outside of Iraq as he might be. My favourite of the two pieces on display was ‘Pastoral’: a bronze relief scene with, as the name suggests, a pastoral scene. The low relief of the work is reminiscent of Neo-Assyrian reliefs, which are similarly shallow and the spiky quality of cylinder seals also seemed apparent to me (and is noted by Zainab Bahrani in the catalogue; p. 13). This piece, of the two, seems to encapsulate his founding premise of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in 1951: استلهام التراث (‘istilham al turath’ = ‘inspiration from tradition’). But as already noted I fear that many people who visited will still not understand his contribution to Iraqi art or the echoes that run through his work. His position at the forefront of the modernist movement in Iraq was mentioned in the leaflet, but not made explicit in the display, unless one watched the archive film, which was rather tucked away.
Sadik Kwaish Alfraji is one of the six living Iraqi artists on display in the exhibition (of whom five were commissioned by the Ruya Foundation for this pavilion). His work (‘I am the Hunter… I am the Prey’) has, perhaps, one of the more obvious links to archeology in the exhibition. The installation comprises an animation, as well as some books and some postcard-sized drawings relating to the animation. The animation focuses on two heads facing each other: hunter and prey; prey and hunter. As the animation unfolds each head fills with different images inspired by Iraqi archaeology and pieces of text (which in the catalogue, it transpires come from the archaeology text books that are on display – more on these in just a moment). What I liked most about this animation was how it played with different temporalities: some images moved so fast that it was impossible to fix on details (or to photograph), whereas other images persisted for longer, but were also in constant flux. This seemed to me to be a keen observation both of how the past in preserved (in fragments) and of how people, both experts and non-experts, reflect on that past: that we (are able to) focus on some things more than others, but that these things are not as fixed and as unchanging as we may (like to) think.
My only critiques of the animation (which I loved!) were the accompanying headphones and, again, some missing information. The headphones emitted a hissing white noise; it was not clear if this was deliberate or if they were broken, which unfortunately seemed to baffle a lot of visitors (so much so, in several cases that it seemed to put people off from watching the animation, which was very sad). Also left largely unexplained were the books in the case (one was mentioned in the label, but not all, it seems). If you’re able to read Arabic, you could read the titles and work out that extracts of these were used in the animation. Many visitors, of course, cannot read Arabic, so some more explanation would have helped. Again, this is given in the catalogue, along with the touching story of how people had sent these to Alfraji and how they reminded him of his own childhood (p.45); a brief note on this could have been provided as part of the installation.
Nadine Hattom’s installation (‘Until the River Winds Ninety Degrees West’) deals with movement, migration and absence, tracing her journey from Iraq to the UAE to Australia. The story is told through a series of photographs from Iraq that border a central installation that shows three small ceramic boats sailing on a sea of intercutting landscapes. The case label, which is more detailed than the others, explains this link and tells the viewer that the central image of intercutting landscapes is based on a Mandaean map from “The Book of Rivers”. The model boats provide a conscious echo of those on display in the artefacts case. Each boat has a sail, an object and a photograph that relate to a stage of the journey. The most powerful element of this installation, for me, was the photography. Each photograph has a caption referring to a person who should be in the photograph, but none of the photographs shows a person. This deletion of the people gives the viewer a deep sense of an aching absence and a loss. The first person voice telling a story to someone else alongside the lack of people in the image means we also get a sense of the painful gap that exists when sharing family memories with someone who cannot imagine the places and people being described. This speaks not only of the many absences of the archaeological record and of the many losses suffered in contemporary Iraq, but also of the power that those absences have. In this case, presence would have had much less resonance and ability to communicate than these quiet, subtle absences.
The final two installations I’d like to talk about are of the only non-Iraqi artist in the exhibition: Francis Alÿs. The video installation (untitled), which seemed to attract a lot of attention (maybe because it was in a more open space that groups could gather round), shows a tank and soldiers in the background and the hand and canvas of an artist in the foreground. As the video unfurls we watch the hand mix together the colours of the desert landscape, nearly forming a picture, but then being wiped almost clean in the final few moments. This feels like a comment on the cultural heritage of Iraq and on archaeology more generally. Archaeology does not deal often in clear-cut facts and incontrovertible truths (a common misconception), but rather in fragments that come together to form shifting narratives that can become clearer, but can never be as sharply defined as we might like. The violent actions of some can then take those pieces and try to shatter them. As in the final scene of this video, however, something, albeit a nebulous something, will always remain, whether these are the further fragmented parts or the memories of those who had developed relationships with the fragments in their lifetimes.
The second installation (untitled) from Francis Alÿs was a series of drawings/paintings. The aspect of these that still haunt me was their bleached out nature, like bones that had been left out in the sun. As with Nadine Hattom’s installation, the power here seemed to lie in the absences, in where there was a lack of oil on the linen, so that we were seeing negatives, the ghosts of where presences had been. These images were profoundly disturbing and spectral – a much more recent past here haunting us.
While I may have experienced some frustration over lighting and information provision, I hope that my responses to the installation here show the extent to which the Ruya Foundation’s pavilion was profoundly thoughtful and thought-provoking. While conflict is, sadly, always a thread running through any commentary on Iraq, this exhibition focussed also on the cultural contributions that Iraq and its artists have made in the past (both deep and more recent) and are making in the present. It is my belief and hope that artists will have a large and significant role to play in the healing and reparation that Iraq will need as it moves into the future. Exhibitions such as this – that show the power of bringing past and present into meaningful and sometimes challenging dialogues, of the importance of taking the past and moving forward with it, of the power of letting absences echo from the past and into the future – are the start of that process.
I am glad I made a trip to Venice just to see this pavilion.
Exhibition catalogue: Ruya Foundation (2017) Archaic: the Pavilion of Iraq – 57th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, Milan: Mousse Publishing.
MacManus, P. M. 2000. Written communications for museums and heritage sites. In Archaeological Displays and the Public: museology and interpretations. 2nd edn, ed. P. M. MacManus, 97-112. London: Archetype Publications.