For two days, Diplomantiq extensively explored the Venice Biennale, Italy, to find out how contemporary art is being used as an alternative method of cultural diplomacy to negotiate identity and culture amongst people around the world.

In this short video case study (below), Mariam Wissam discusses with Diplomantiq founder, 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 overview of how art and culture initiatives are increasingly attending to, and resolving, social and cultural issues around the world, outside the realms of traditional methods of diplomacy.

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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 throughout 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 their best and the finest contemporary works during the Biennale.

//A special year

The Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia in 2013 exhibited the works of eleven Iraqi artists residing in Iraq – for the first time since 1975. Notable British curator, 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 was 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 as they would in the comfort of their own home.

//The citizens as diplomats

The Iraqi pavilion showcased works by Iraqi artists from different locations in the country including Baghdad, Babylon, Basra and Kurdistan.

//Bringing Iraq closer to the world 

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 seems 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, and the world, to Iraq.

//Over 88 countries representing their contemporary art in Venice

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 within Iraq, and 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 had a modest presence in the Venice Biennale, but the 2013 pavilion 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 and from different generations, this exhibition gave attendees a glimpse into the art and 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 participating countries 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 for participating countries. In the case of Iraq, however, a clear outcome of this exhibition was that it helped humanise the people of Iraq for the visitors, beyond the statistics and figures of tragic events associated with it in the media. ‘Welcome to Iraq’ was a warm home for visitors from around the world, who sat in the salon setting to watch an Iraqi film on a laptop, or drink Iraqi Chai (tea) in the kitchen while surrounded by art sculptures.

Light in a dark corner, is what this exhbition brought me as a visitor – That through such art and cultural initiatives, the people can be play a vital part in their society’s progress, and build bridges that extend beyond borders.

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