Exploring how Iraqi conflict altered art

As a new show depicting the influence of the Gulf wars on artists’ work opens in New York, Melissa Gronlund reflects on the impact and legacy of the fighting

Dia Al Azzawi’s ‘Victim’s Portrait’ (1991) is based on a picture of a fallen Iraqi soldier that the artist saw in a British newspaper Dia Al Azzawi

The timing, heartbreakingly, could not be better. As news of ­anti-government protests and violence pours out of Iraq, a show has opened in New York looking at the impact the First Gulf War of 1991 and the Second Gulf War of 2003 has had on art. 

Theatre of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011, which opened at MoMA PS1, the experimental outpost of New York's Museum of Modern Art, on Sunday, looks at how artists globally responded to American engagement in Iraq. The events were not just historically important, say the exhibition's curators Ruba Katrib and Peter Eleey. The wars also coincided with technological shifts that drastically affected artistic practice and general media consumption. 

"With the Gulf War, going back to 1991, we have the relatively new 24-hour news cycle," says Katrib. "There was satellite technology that made it possible for reporters to be live in Baghdad and to be reporting on events as they were happening – to be in the hotel while the bombs were going off in the background. With the 2003 [Second Gulf] War, you have the rise of digital technologies and the internet, and a lot of the artists in the show are dealing with what is happening when images are being shared." 

American artist Sean Snyder, for example, has made a composite portrait of US soldiers who served in Iraq by pulling images uploaded to Flickr, a kind of early Instagram for image-­sharing, by the servicemen. The gridded work has a monumental, slightly scientific quality, looking like a collection of pictures intended to memorialise or testify, even though the images themselves show recreation and connection. "At the time there were new image sites and sharing platforms. New images were being produced, and different kinds of people were producing images," says Katrib. "This was really integral with how the region was being represented, and how it was consumed by those outside." 

A running joke at the time of both Gulf wars was that invasion was the only way Americans learnt geography. Not through teachers, but through newsreaders holding up maps. By focusing on how the war appeared back "home" in the US, the exhibition underlines how impactful – and essentially visual – the introduction of Iraq via the news media proved. The idea of the "Arab street", depicted as video game-like explosions seen from afar over the city and oil flares, continues to form the way many Americans still picture the Arab region.  

Theatre of Operations shows how Arab and American artists reacted to the war via mediated images – mediation was not simply a factor of remoteness for Americans, but the chief means for everyone, globally, to watch the conflict. Tarek Al-Ghoussein, a Palestinian artist born in Kuwait, experienced the 1990-1991 invasion of Kuwait from Cairo, where he shot Polaroids of the TV's representation of the events. His blurry images, of explosions, gas fires, soldiers and men in traditional Arab dress, give off an air of authenticity, as if their poor quality is due to the in-situ circumstances of the making. They are, in fact, a record of his distance from it. 

In London, Iraqi artist Dia Al Azzawi was also painting from media images. Victim's Portrait (1991), a close-up rendered in Al Azzawi's signature palette of primary colours, was created after Al Azzawi came across an image of a charred body of an Iraqi soldier in British newspaper The Observer.

Martha Rosler’s ‘Hooded Captives’ from her series ‘House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home’ Martha Rosler and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

The show is an enormous one: it fills the entire premises of the PS1 art space, a former public school building in Queens, and totals more than 300 works. Given its interest in tracing the convergence between new forms of media representations and the Iraq wars, there are a number of US artists known for their investigations into how images shape perception – Paul Chan, Martha Rosler, Michel Auder, for example – and it is interesting to see how artwork about media images translates into work about violence. Major installations, such as Thomas Hirschhorn's Hotel Democracy (2003), which famously critiqued American actions at the time, are also re-created for this show. But the curators have cast a wide net in researching artworks, and a second line of pieces display a more immediate response to the conflict. In these, there is a clear shift in tone: more earnest, more heart-rending, such as with photojournalist Susan Meiselas's documentation of the First Gulf War, showing mass graves in Iraqi Kurdistan, forensic specialists investigating evidence of executions and the anonymous graves of children. In Judith Joy Ross's images – as full of people as Meiselas's are often empty – the American photographer has documented anti-war protesters in middle America, displaying them with images of the soldiers and families who fought abroad. Both sides of the political conflict are shown in black-and-white, straightforward portraits, with nothing to formally distinguish between them.

Nuha Al Radi’s sculptures, inset, are made from metal cans, and whatever materials she could find during US sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s. Kris Graves

Other artworks deal with the attritional effects of US sanctions. The "embargo sculptures" of Nuha Al Radi, who became well-known internationally for Baghdad Diaries, her account of life in Baghdad during the First Gulf War, are a reminder that the sanctions were felt not as much by the government as by everyday Iraqis. These rough, spindly, figural works are made of whatever material Al Radi could find in the early 1990s: rocks, metal canisters, wood, feathers. It's an Arte Povera aesthetic born of being in geopolitical crosshairs. 

Kuwaiti artist Thuruya Al Baqsami, whose husband was taken prisoner during the First Gulf War, is also given prominence, with her images of anger and mourning that show the conflict as a story of martyrdom and stymied calls for peace. Her chronicle of pain, in its folkloric, almost mythical register, finds echoes in the work of British-American artist Sue Coe's woodcuts of the Second Gulf War's atrocities, such as the chemical bombing of Fallujah and the American offences at Abu Ghraib, which similarly achieve a totemic quality. 

Kuwaiti artist Thuraya Al Baqsami, whose husband was taken a prisoner of war during the Gulf War, created posters such as this linocut reading "No to the occupation" (1990). Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah

It was reported recently in The New York Times that 64 per cent of US soldiers think the Second Gulf War was not worth fighting. One question I have, going into this exhibition, is whether American audiences appreciate how cataclysmic the two wars are considered to have been by the Arab region. The fact that, as recent protests and subsequent crackdowns in Iraq display, Iraqi citizens continue to live amid violence, political instability and a lack of economic opportunity, speaks painfully to how the effects of the two Gulf wars are ongoing.  

“There’s now a nearly 30-year entanglement with Iraq, and especially in the United States it’s very overdue,” says Katrib. “It’s a moment that needs to be looked at not just in the last week or weeks, but at where certain aspects of the situation crystallised, and where certain things happened that could help us trace what’s happening now.” 

Theatre of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 is at MoMA PS1 in New York until Sunday March 1