For two days, Diplomantiq intensively explored the Venice Biennale, Italy, to find out how contemporary art is being used as a measure of diplomacy to negotiate national identity and culture. Mariam Wissam discusses with Mustafa Al-Obaidi the presence of the Iraqi pavilion at the Biennale and how it plays a pivotal role in challenging the negative mainstream narratives surrounding the country, post 2003 invasion and occupation. Through this case study, we aim to provide a clear exploration of how art and culture can be utilised as a measure for citizens to ultimately prevent and resolve conflicts even from the most accessible grassroots level.
The Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia in 2013 exhibits the works of eleven Iraqi artists residing in Iraq. Jonathon Watkins curated the exhibition that includes works from across the media; photography, drawings, paintings, video, installations, sculptures and textiles.
Titled “Welcome to Iraq”, the exhibition is held in Ca’ Dandolo, a 16th-century building that has not been used before as a pavilion during the Venice Biennale. The first floor of the building is reserved for the Iraqi pavilion that has been designed like an Iraqi home; with a salon atmosphere, and a place where visitors can interact with the works like they are in the comfort of their own home.
Commissioned by The Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, represented by Tamara Chalabi the chairman of Ruya who has worked with researchers and experts on art within Iraq to find and located the artists. This research included visits to studios, events for artists in cities like Baghdad, Babylon, Basra and Kurdistan.
All around Venice, walkers and visitors can spot posters of the Iraqi pavilion, only the title of the exhibition is slightly changed “ Welcome to Occupied Iraq”. An interesting play on the so-called ‘liberation’ of Iraq and what it really means in the context of art and culture. According to the Commissioner:
“Decades of repression, censorship and conflict have limited Iraq’s culture, but art is now re-emerging from within the country despite the difficulties artists face”.
The exhibition seem to celebrate just that, with various works that highlight the different social and political issues Iraqis face ; the exhibition almost plays the role of the vehicle that connects Venice to Iraq.
The Venice Biennale is always referred to as the Mother of all events arts and culture; with more than 88 countries representing their contemporary art in Venice, in addition to several collateral events and exhibitions spread through out the city, the Venice Biennale is the Olympics of the Arts. The pavilions exhibit the works of their countries for 6 months, in which visitors from around the world come to see what each country has to represent. Arguably cultural diplomacy at its finest ,hence the rush for countries to exhibit the best and the finest contemporary works during the biennale.
Iraq’s exhibition this year was anticipated with excitement; not only it was curated by a renowned curator known for his large-scale exhibitions and successes around the world ,but also it featured works from artists in Iraq, not the famous Iraqi artists residing in the Diaspora. Iraq’s last grand show at the biennale was in 1975, only to be stopped by years of wars and sanctions. In 2011, the Iraqi pavilion participated in the Venice Biennale, but the 2013 seems to be more fitting to the Venice Biennale. The fact that the exhibition stayed true to the original essence of the Biennale; exhibiting works of artists in Iraq, across all media, across all ages, this exhibition served as a true glimpse into the cultural scene in Iraq.
The question always arises during the Venice biennale on the purpose of these grand-scale national representations and exhibitions, some argue that they manage to create different narratives of that country by curating exhibitions that highlight several issues usually not covered by mainstream Media.
Others argue that the biennale provokes curiosity which leads to an increase in tourism and investment. In the case of Iraq I think the main purpose the exhibition served, was to humanize the country again. To remove it from being in Media, Iraq in Venice is a warm home for visitors from around the world , who sit in the salon-setting to watch a film on a laptop, or drink Iraqi Chai (tea) in the kitchen while surrounded by sculptures.
The exhibition might not increase tourism given the horrible security situation in the country, but it sure did change the narrative of Iraq for those who visit, as well as its national representation worldwide.
// Adore&Endure //