I assumed that the title of this exhibition – Welcome to Iraq – was a sardonic nod to the violence and desperation that has been inflicted on that country over the decade since the US-led invasion in 2003. The violence is worsening; the UN reported 703 dead last month alone. But it is sincere, not sardonic – an attempt by its British curator Jonathan Watkins, director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, to promote what is hopeful about the country. First shown at the Iraq Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year, these paintings, sculptures, films, and photographs by 11 contemporary Iraqi artists have now been transported to the South London Gallery in Peckham.
While I admire Watkins’s determination to show what is new and vital about the cultural life of Iraq, this exhibition made me uneasy. It is nuanced and elegant. But there is too little direct engagement with the political situation. These are not works of protest art, and, so the argument goes, why should they be? Iraqi artists, like artists from anywhere, are interested in the full spectrum of the human condition. They should not be burdened with the responsibility of exploring only conflict. But to represent a country so mired in that conflict and refer to it only obliquely seems odd. In fact, it seems like dreamy depoliticization.
Still, this exhibition is fascinating and seems to grow in significance the more you think about it. Occasionally it is painfully poignant. It made me think hard about the relationship between art and politics and how one can serve the other. The best art asks questions without necessarily giving answers. Politically committed, angry art doesn’t have to be dogmatic or crude. To remain in the realm of the purely aesthetic in times of such dire human emergency seems perverse. Hope, affirmation – these words don’t seem to be enough.
Iraq participated in the Biennale for the first time in 2011 after a break of 35 years, and it was criticized for not including any artists who still lived and worked in the country. Commissioned by the non-profit Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, Watkins did an impressive job of rectifying that for the 2013 pavilion. He travelled to Iraq and found these artists, largely by word of mouth – a feat. As he says, there is no cultural infrastructure, no institutions to consult, so the task was immense. All these works were made in the country since “shock and awe”, which makes their remote handling of the bombing all the more strange. There is a sense of violence that is everywhere and nowhere at once. I’m not sure if this is a highly sophisticated curatorial trick or a serious omission.
The exception is Abdul Raheem Yassir’s series of political cartoons, made between 2003 and 2013. They are surreal and powerful. They put David Shrigley to shame. These quick ink sketches on paper show tragicomic scenarios of contemporary Iraq that are more tragic than comic. One shows an artist standing next to his easel, holding his palette. In front of him, there are endless rows of cement blast walls that are ubiquitous in Baghdad. This is a grim and existentially horrifying scene of being fenced in. But the artist has painted on his canvas a tree in full bloom. Is this wilful self-delusion or necessary escapism? Should the artist record reality or create idealized images that offer a route out of that reality?
The theme of escapism appears elsewhere. Marshes 1 (2012) is a painting by Bassim Al-Shaker, which hangs above a sofa covered in fabrics and cushions from Kurdistan, with their beautiful rich red geometric designs. The painting is remarkable for its sense of timelessness. On first glance, it looks like a painting made to be sold to tourists – a sentimental and naive representation of rural life. There is a woman wearing a red head scarf, carrying a bundle of crops. On closer inspection, the brush strokes are surprisingly aggressive. The crops that grow are spiky and brutally rendered. The sky is a dirty white. A smoke-grey cloud seems to be pushing down the whole scene, threatening rain. Of course, not just rain but bombs have recently fallen out of the skies of Iraq.
In fact, the scene is an imagined memory of the marshlands of southern Iraq, a verdant water world on which hundreds of thousands of people once depended for their survival. The marshlands were drained in the early 1990s by Saddam Hussein, thus causing mass displacement and an ecological disaster placed by the UN on a par with the deforestation of the Amazon. They were drained in the 1950s by the British too. The marshlands are crucial to Iraq’s ancient heritage; biblical scholars believe that the original Garden of Eden was located here. This is a paradise destroyed in the literal sense.
The beauty of this exhibition is that it allows you to sit and contemplate these works, which are subtle and often slow to reveal their meaning. The gallery has been cleverly divided into rooms, which emulate the relaxed atmosphere of a domestic interior. There are rugs throughout, and a table covered with books about Iraq. Traditional bitter black tea is served free to all visitors, and there is a long table for discussion. The encouragement of debate is important – but the overall framing of this exhibition is skewed, and made me think about whose interests are being served by a post-2003 Iraqi national pavilion. All the pavilions at Venice are nation- promoting exercises, to some degree. This is particularly charged in the case of Iraq. There is an endorsement by the Minister of Culture Saadoun al-Dulaimi in the catalogue. He was appointed Minister of Defence following the US-led invasion. The bias is gentle. Watkins says that the diaspora, more than those living in Iraq, are inclined to make work about the occupation. This maybe so – but there is no direct criticism of the US or Allies whatsoever.
There is, however, criticism of Saddam Hussein. Saddam Is Here (2009-10) is a series of photographs by Jamal Penjweny. Each shows an Iraqi holding a black and white photograph of Saddam over his or her face. One of the most striking is a portrait of a woman sitting on a bed. She wears sexy red lingerie and bright-blue ankle socks but her knees are pressed together primly. The mattress is dingy but there is an aquamarine pillow behind her, embroidered with the words: Love Story. And there is a sinister small toy on the bed beside her. It is a small skeleton drinking a bottle of beer: a figure of death enjoying itself. The woman’s face is entirely concealed by the photograph of Saddam – it is a mask. His face has become her face. Her manner of holding the photograph has cast a malformed shadow on the wall. Instead of her silhouette, there is an angular, inhuman shape.
This series recalls the Warhol motif of multiplying icons ad nauseam until their features no longer resemble the human but the superman – an apt critique of the dictator’s cult of personality. But I also saw it as a critique of the way the West – happy to bomb Iraq – see the Iraqi people. Not as individuals with lives as valuable as our own, but a homogenised mass with a single visage: Saddam’s. This process of dehumanization has been key to justifying the bombing. Our attention is not directed to the particular, human suffering of the Iraqi people, but to the capture and killing of a monster. By contrast, Watkins writes that the series is primarily a critique of the dictator and the control that he continues to exert. I found this interesting – how you see these works is shaped unconsciously or consciously by how you see the war itself.
Welcome to Iraq, South London Gallery, London SE5 (020 7703 6120) to 1 June