South London Gallery, Camberwell
15 March – 1 June 2014
by MK PALOMAR
“This is an exhibition which is very easy going with art,” the curator Jonathan Watkins tells us, then adds: “We are playing fast and loose with conventional definitions of art in this show.”2 Ostensibly a collection of cultural artefacts from Iraq, Welcome to Iraq is, I propose, more a series of installations than an exhibition. The reconstructed Iraqi spaces comprise comfortable sofas (covered in brightly woven rugs), richly patterned carpets, piles of old and new books to browse through on low tables, films playing on laptops, wall-displayed artworks to view – with tea and cakes on offer to visitors – all contributing to an enjoyable, yet somehow dislocated, experience of a very distant place. And while the gap between the here and there seems evident throughout this exhibition, there also seems to be a call from across this divide from a people who are letting us know: “We are still here – this is how we are, and this is what we get up to.”
Most of us visitors to the South London Gallery will not physically experience the distant landscape of Iraq, where the ancient Sumerian culture thrived more than 5,000 years ago, Islam arrived around 700AD, the royal family was assassinated by revolutionaries in 1958, and then came recent history, war, oil, genocide and more war. And most of us continue to have a fixed and clichéd idea about what Iraq is. We know the Garden of Eden is sited there, we know its reputation as the birthplace of culture, and we know that, today, the land is scarred by the ravages of war. Tamara Chalabi of Ruya, the Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq (they commissioned this work for the Venice Biennale 2013), explained: “I was last in Iraq a couple of months ago – it’s terrible because of the Syrian war and the elections – it’s hard to take.”3
Still Iraq is a mysterious land and very far away from most of our western understandings. Seeing and being in this south London refiguring of Iraqi cultural spaces, we are witness to the marvellous, yet also desperate, determination of a people to survive in the face of ongoing adversity. While the necessity they are experiencing nurtures a recycling inventiveness (note the wonderful bench made from a bicycle, and the seat from a generator stand), in this dislocation of these artefacts from their place, there is also a resonance of tragedy and loss. I was reminded of the 1942 poem The Naming of Parts by Henry Reed,4 in which a young soldier, while arranging and ordering the parts of his gun, is preparing for battle, and at the same time observing how spring, with early bees and almond blossom, has arrived in the garden around him. When one world rubs up against another, calamity is often palpable in the air. Yet as Watkins explains in his catalogue text: “Normally, for the vast majority [of people living in Iraq], the daily round is a question of making do and getting by in difficult circumstances.”
So perhaps we should listen more to the people’s call, “We are still here” rather than dwelling on the perceived calamity of loss in this arrangement and ordering of things. Yet as I sat on a comfortable sofa – “We wanted [in this exhibition] to defy the expectations of being uncomfortable, which is what you’d expect if you visited Iraq,” Watkins told us – I looked through a large book titled The Treasures of the Iraqi Museum 1972 and glanced to another titled The Looting of the Iraqi Museum 2005. Iraq is a very bookish culture, Chalabi explained: “There is a saying: Cairo wrote, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads.” The books are next to a laptop playing what appears to be a daytime soap opera. This, Watkins says, is how films are made in Iraq today – “They are moral tales or parables adopting the conventions of soap opera in order to suggest better ways of living.”5
He continues: “Since the 1980s, there has been very little cultural exchange – it’s difficult to go in, and even harder to get out. We wanted the work of artists who are living in Iraq. We had to go along in a very haphazard way – led around by word of mouth.”6 The paintings are very diverse in content and genre (hence Watkins declaring: “We are playing fast and loose with conventional definitions of art in this show”). There are nostalgic images of marsh Arabs – cartoon-like drawings of everyday struggles, Twombly-like layerings of pigments, signs and letters, photographs of performed poses with Sadam Hussein portraits, sculptures of found objects and recycled cardboard. The cover of the catalogue shows graffiti painted on to a cement wall. The wall (for those of us who don’t understand life in a war zone) is a blast wall, built to protect civilians from bomb blasts. These, Watkins explains, are all over Baghdad. The graffiti image appears almost biblical – figures standing by water, a man in a boat, an animal drinking, clouds above – and Arabic script scrawled across the sea. The text, Chalabi explains, is an advertisement for a man offering his services as a crane driver. This wonderful example of determination of spirit – for those who continue to live in that city so heaped in ancient and contemporary his and herstories – showing how imposed structures can be employed not only as spaces for imagined dreams to flourish, but also as advertising billboards for work opportunities, sums up what Watkins explained to us is the ever present idea of recycling in the culture of Iraq today. Through recycling is the possibility of change, in change [there is life], and where there’s life there’s hope. Welcome to Iraq is a remarkable glimpse of another world in South London.
1. Text from South London Gallery online exhibition information.
2. Curator Jonathan Watkins presenting Welcome to Iraq at the South London Gallery press view, 14 March 2014.
3. Tamara Chalabi of Ruya at the press view of Welcome to Iraq.
4. Naming of Parts by Henry Reed, first published in New Statesman and Nation, 8 August 1942, http://www.solearabiantree.net/namingofparts/namingofparts.html.
5. Text from the catalogue Welcome to Iraq, published by Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, 2013.
6. Curator Jonathan Watkins presenting Welcome to Iraq at the South London Gallery press view, 14 March 2014.