At the Venice Biennale 2017: the Iraqi Pavilion

In the first instalment of our At the Venice Biennale series, we explore the Iraqi Pavilion, which is showcasing archaeological treasures on loan from the National Museum of Iraq, along with works by modern artists, highlighting the country’s cultural importance.

Luay Fadhil. The Scribe. Courtesy the artist and Ruya Foundation
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The first vitrine of the Iraq Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale is a selection of anything but contemporary works. In fact, these objects date back thousands of years.

There are tiny statues of female figures and animals, and a row of cylinder seals. Some of the smaller statues are so worn down over the centuries that their stone features are no more than shadows.

The archaeological objects are on loan from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. These are the first loans since 1988 from the museum, famous for the shocking televised images of its looting in 2003 after the United States invasion.

The title of the exhibition, Archaic, is an obvious characterisation of those loaned objects, which make the city of Venice – itself a preserved museum – seem new by comparison.

Yet the rest of the pavilion’s art in the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti on the Grand Canal is new – either from the second half of the 20th century, or commissioned for the 2017 Biennale. Those works are displayed as examples of modern art rooted in the cultures of an ancient land.

Among the ancient works is a clay fertility goddess, a cluster of round orbs with a smallish head and painted details.

“This lady is our oldest piece. She’s Neolithic. She’s a fertility goddess,” says the exhibition’s co-organiser, Tamara Chalabi. “She doesn’t look bad, but she’s had some restoration done.”

With delicate works like these, the Iraq Pavilion is more about the studied gaze than the grand gestures seen elsewhere in the Biennale.

A fragile clay boat from the fourth millennium BC, reproduced on the cover of the pavilion’s catalogue, seems a metaphor for a collection of objects that somehow made it to the present.

Cylinder seals from the fourth millennium BC, carved to produce lively scenes in miniature when rolled over clay, depict figures in what look like continuous friezes. Students of modern art will recognise bodies that seem to move from figure to figure, as they do in the stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge or the cubist paintings of Marcel Duchamp.

The objects from the National Museum could have all fit in a suitcase, yet the history that they carry is vast.

The artists in the rest of the exhibition are carrying their own share of history.

Closest to those ancient objects, as one moves through the gallery, are two works that ­present Iraqi subjects seen through the lens of 20th-century modernism.

Both are by Jewad Selim (1919-61), who has been described as the father of modern Iraqi art.

The first, The Hen Seller (1951), is a painting that channels Pablo Picasso in its geometric depiction of figures. A hen with an upside-down head is larger than the iconic figure of the man who was presumably selling it. There is a magic to the whimsy of the picture that has not been shown in public, according to Chalabi, since the 1960s.

Another work by Selim is Pastoral (1955), a bronze relief with a massive water buffalo, crescent moons, palm trees, and a female figure tending to the ensemble of forms.

The construction of Pastoral, as a set of sculptural elements, is no less modern than The Hen Seller, yet its incised details echo the scenes in the cylinder seals nearby that were done thousands of years before.

Chalabi says this affinity is no accident: “Selim really believed that the source of the modern vernacular language was rooted in the ancient.”

Alongside Selim’s work is the work of his student, Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925-2004).

Both were part of the Baghdad Modern Art Group formed in the 1950s.

Yet, whereas Selim blended modernism with local elements, Al Said took an ascetic Sufi path toward abstraction, says Chalabi.

“Painting was a way of getting close to the divine. Painting was a form of worship for him,” she says.

Chalabi, daughter of the late politician Ahmed Chalabi (a founder of the Iraqi National Congress), organised the Archaic exhibition with co-curator Paolo Colombo. Almost all the other works in the library of the Palazzo on view were commissioned. Many of the artists are living outside Iraq.

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, who is now based in Sharjah, has a video work called The Hunter and the Hunted, a rapid-fire compendium of images on the themes of aggressor and victim.

On his last visit to Baghdad in 2009, Alfraji became aware of the absence of people whom he knew, but also of the city’s steady transformation after decades of what he called “uninterrupted war”.

“I didn’t find Baghdad. The Baghdad that I knew had disappeared,” he says. “The only way to fill this gap is to make art.”

His work in the pavilion is a collection of fragments on video, filled with charcoal drawings that reconstruct memories and all thrown together – literally – with images from his past, inside the frames of two outlines of his head in profile. Some images recur, like images of photographs of objects from the National Museum, or Alfraji’s drawings in charcoal of the same objects.

“It’s not about contemporary or ancient, it’s about the feeling of existence,” he says, looking toward the vitrine of ancient objects. “When you touch one of these pieces, you feel the existence of the person who made it 5,000 years ago.”

The artists in Archaic are ­working in styles as varied as the places to which they have been dispersed.

Sakar Sleman, from Kurdistan, practises land art in huge ­formations that are shown in photographs.

Nadine Hattom, an Australian-Iraqi now living in Berlin, evokes the water that is central to the religious rites of Iraq’s disappearing Mandaean community.

The film Scribe, by Luay Fadhil, who is based in Baghdad, scrutinises an everyday institution of men with pen and paper, who put the needs of their clients into words.

Walking among the vitrines, which make the pavilion look like an archaeological exhibition, you have the sense that the term “archaic” means fragile as well as primordial, and that art made by Iraqi artists today needs preservation, just as antiquities in the National Museum do, as does Iraq’s ancient heritage that is still underground.

Not every artist in Archaic is Iraqi. Included in the pavilion are paintings by Francis Alÿs, the Belgian-born photographer and painter who now lives in Mexico.

Under the sponsorship of the Ruya Foundation, Alys was embedded with Iraqi troops during the siege of Mosul.

His paintings, which began with sketches that he made while with Peshmerga forces, are shadowy scenes of war, with figures in brown paint applied to brown canvas.

“The images are simple because of the conditions where they were made, and the limited time-frame in which I was allowed to work, since we kept on moving,” said Alÿs, who says he sketched scenes during the day and painted at night. “It took me a while to find a way of reacting to the situation, to try to find a way to translate what I was looking at without falling into a journalistic language.”

The language of those small paintings and the terracotta palette echo that of the cylinder seals from the National Museum.

Images of war have an iconic ­simplicity. Men move through the shadows. The ghostly image of a bird with a beak also looks like a prisoner being beheaded.

Once again, pictures from thousands of years ago haunt artists looking at Iraq today.

Next week we explore the ­Egyptian Pavilion.