An unsettling sight awaits visitors at Ca’ Dandolo, a 16th-century building on the Grand Canal in Venice: a sea of Iraqi citizens dotted around the streets, hotels and shops of Baghdad holding a photograph of Saddam Hussein over their faces. The images are by Jamal Penjweny, one of 11 artists representing Iraq at this year’s Venice Biennale.
“All of the people in the series, entitled ‘Saddam is Here’ (2010), be they in Baghdad, Erbil [capital of Iraqi Kurdistan] or Basra, are all human beings with a shared history of fear,” says Penjweny, a shepherd from rural Kurdistan.
A stark, elegiac sculpture by Furat al Jamil is just as potent. “Honey Pot”, the artist explains, “combines a static element in the form of an antique broken pot that reflects the destruction of the past, and a kinetic element in the form of a suspended honeycomb frame that drips its contents into the pot, which defines the possibility of reconstruction in Iraq.”
But do these different interpretations of existence today in Iraq carry weight? “I don’t just want this to be a curatorial translation of Newsnight,” says Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, who stepped in late last year to curate the Iraq pavilion presentation. “It’s more like giving many people a number of cameras. What they’re doing is not so spectacular but often it tells you a lot more about what is going on.”
Watkins has previously organised key Middle Eastern exhibitions, including the Sharjah Biennial in 2007, but his experiences in that region left him ill-equipped for this project. “You can’t simply translate the same mindset to Iraq,” he stresses.
Just as al Jamil tries to make sense out of chaos, two other artists also create a sense of order from disorder. Akeel Khreef’s sculptural pieces are made from the detritus found on the streets; one stand-out work is his chair, crafted from a broken generator and crumpled bicycle. Meanwhile Bassim Al-Shaker’s oil paintings of Iraq’s southern marshlands are also “therapeutic”, Watkins says. “He paints a very traditional lifestyle in a very academic way.”
Watkins has visited the country three times since last November, seeking out artists isolated from the burgeoning international calendar of biennials and art fairs. Travelling in a bulletproof car surrounded by soldiers was a constant reminder of the instability that underlies daily life, with sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia factions constantly unsettling the country’s politics.
His account of time spent poring over works in artist studios, colleges and art associations across Iraq, from Baghdad to Basra in the south to Kurdistan in the north, is often affecting. “We went to the Fine Arts Association in Basra,” he recalls. “They say things which are heartbreaking – for instance, ‘You’re the first foreign curator who’s come to see us.’”
Many collectors and curators have fled the country, leaving Iraqi artists deprived of a critical and commercial infrastructure. As Watkins points out, they “are not aware of the big shows; they don’t really know what the Venice Biennale is or what Documenta [which takes place in Kassel every five years] is, so I gave them very basic information … this is an important jolt for them into the international circuit.”
All of the artists have been granted visas, allowing them to see close-up how the art world operates at the biennale. This could be a burden as well as a blessing. “My fear is that a lot of dealers will circle round these artists. This would be the worst thing that could happen to them – to think of art in Iraq like people have been thinking about oil in Iraq.”
On leaving Baghdad, he says, Abdul Raheem Yassir, whose cartoons use humour to defuse the grisly reality of life, casually handed over a haul of his original drawings. “I noted that I’d taken 20 of his works. He probably won’t be doing that again after the biennale,” Watkins observes.
Furat al Jamil’s ambitions for the biennale are refreshingly low-key. “I am under no illusion that our art can completely educate an international audience about Iraq’s art scene,” she says. “This seems to be a limited objective, but in fact we will be surrounded by an educated and demanding audience that knows – as well as loves – art, and might decide to consider Iraqi art in particular.”
Participation in the biennale is a form of “soft power”– where better to pursue cultural diplomacy than at the world’s largest exhibition? – so Iraq’s pavilion may help change perceptions of a country ravaged by war and western sanctions. Its appearance at the 2011 biennale was its first after a 35-year hiatus, although the show, entitled Wounded Water, showed works by artists from the country’s diaspora, such as Walid Siti and Ali Assaf.
Watkins is adamant that this year’s selection is a faithful barometer of current artistic practice: “It is more important for Iraq to do a show based on the work from there now; we’ve seen the diaspora, in fact, [at exhibitions] in Dubai and Sharjah – all the people nominated as Iraqi are all those who live outside the country.”
He gained access to Iraq’s art scene through the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, a non-profit, non-governmental body founded in 2012, which took on the Venice commission this year. Its founding members include historian Tamara Chalabi and Reem Shather-Kubba, a lawyer who co-chaired the patrons committee for the 2011 pavilion.
That display was part-funded by the Iraqi government. This time, although both the Kurdistan regional government and the ministry of culture in Baghdad have greenlighted the project, Ruya is clearly in the driving seat, with funding for the pavilion coming entirely through private donations.
It will, of course, have a lot of competition. The danger in Venice is of missing key exhibitions because of the sheer number of shows on offer. Middle Eastern countries are out in force this year: Akram Zaatari, representing Lebanon, will show a complex video installation in the Arsenale, while the United Arab Emirates will feature a solo presentation by the Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem.
Watkins insists that the Iraq pavilion will present a different sort of experience, less White Cube and more homely. “There’s a kitchen where you can have tea and biscuits; there will be books lying round,” he says. And then he ponders, telling me once again why he thinks we should traipse to Ca’ Dandolo. “I want us to convey an image of Iraq that is at once realistic and encouraging. The artists’ determination to make do and get by gives us cause for hope.”
‘Welcome to Iraq’, Ca’ Dandolo, Venice, June 1-November 24, www.theiraqpavilion.com