"It made sense to turn to the land itself": Rand Abdul Jabbar speaks about how Iraq's past inspired her latest exhibition

Her show of ceramic sculptures opens today at NYUAD's Project Space

Rand Abdul Jabbar made brightly coloured ceramics with slightly totemic forms: tapered waists that call to mind primitive figurative sculptures; thin crescents that evoke natural motifs; symmetrical forms that look like cuneiform writing.

The work is inspired by her native Iraq – or, more specifically, the distinctive mix of memory and distance of the emigre, who looks to a place that has never been her home.

Jabbar was born in Baghdad, but moved to Abu Dhabi at the age of five and grew up between the UAE and Canada. Her exhibition Earthly Wonders, Celestial Beings at the NYUAD Project Space, which opens on Tuesday, grew out of an invitation she received to co-curate the Iraq Pavilion for Dubai Design Week in 2016. "I was faced with the question of how do you represent a place that, on the one hand, you have this very deep emotional affinity for, but on the other hand you've been completely detached from for over two decades?" she says.

“I felt like I couldn’t lay claim to the contemporary narrative of Iraq, and I was searching for a connection. It made sense to turn to the land itself: the earth and what archaeology has uncovered within it. Despite ethnic or religious or language differences, in Iraq there’s shared pride in our ancient past, so it became common ground to explore.”

Abdul Jabbar began researching ancient Mesopotamian objects in museum collections, such as at the British Museum in London and the Pergamon in Berlin. Six months ago, she returned to Iraq for the first time since her family left and visited the Iraq Museum, still the largest holder of ancient Mesopotamian artefacts despite the looting after the Second Gulf War, as well as heritage sites on the outskirts of the capital. She became interested in the idea that the forms themselves hold some memory or intrinsic connection to her.

"I had an idea of reverberating forms, and a language that exists somewhere between past, present and future," she says. "I wanted to set up a dialogue with this heritage as not being something fixed in the past, but very much part of who we are in shaping our future. How can you manage that element of your identity and your history and make it an active part of shaping who you are?"

Abdul Jabbar moulded the small forms in clay and then, after firing them, glazed them in the bright colours that would have been used thousands of years ago: royal blues, deep ochres, olive greens. Although most ancient sculpture now appears in greys, blacks and browns, she says it was originally brightly coloured, as attested by the grand Ishtar Gates, now at the Pergamon Museum, that watched over an entrance to Babylon. Recent museum practice is working to correct the assumption that ancient statuary, whether Greco-Roman or Mesopotamian, lacked colour.

A number of new exhibitions are introducing the idea of polychromy, or all-over colour, whether by projections of colour on to the works – as in the exhibition I Am Ashurbanipal, which Abdul Jabbar saw at the British Museum – or by painting them on to the works themselves, despite audiences often finding the painted sculptures jarring or garish.

Abdul Jabbar's show also nods to museum practice. She has named the works in letter and numerical code, stemming from the title Earthly Wonders, Celestial Beings – EWCB 976, EWCB 977 – as if following typical conventions of classification.

Jabbar’s interest in museums also reflects the realities of viewing these objects, many of which are not in Iraq. “Even Iraqi archaeologists cannot always view them or have this intimate interaction with them,” she says about the experience of viewing Mesopotamian artefacts in England.

“You feel your country has been stripped of its own resources. They’re in foreign lands, in foreign atmospheres. You’d think that they’d want to return home.”

Rand Abdul Jabber’s Earthly Wonders, Celestial Beings opens at NYUAD today and runs until June 29.