Welcome to Iraq, art review: New exhibition shows country in whole new light

A new show of work by Iraqi artists features fascinating images, but Zoe Pilger asks if it tells the whole story about the aftermath of the 2003 invasion

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.

Abdul Raheem Yassir’s miscellaneous cartoons (2003-13)  

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.

‘Buzz’ (2012) by Hareth Alhomaam  

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.

‘Untitled’ (2011) by Kadhim Nwir

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor