Originally displayed in the Iraqi pavilion during least year’s Venice Biennale (only the second time the country has participated in the global art megalith), this fascinating exhibition is a primer on artists working in Iraq – as opposed to the sizeable number of Iraqi artists working abroad. Its British curator, Jonathan Watkins, has sought out as many creative approaches as possible from inside the country’s battered borders.The result, inevitably, is a rather jumbled show.
Painting is represented both by Kadhim Nwir’s enticingly doodly, kaleidoscopic abstractions and by Bassim Al-Shaker’s much more traditional, academic depictions of agricultural labourers in marshland country. Work that comments on media coverage of events in the country ranges from newspaper cartoons by Abdul Raheem Yassir, satirising Iraqis who watch news unfolding in their own backyard, to Cheeman Ismaeel’s elaborately painted, text-covered television set, which looks like some sort of mad, outsider-art object.
Tying it all together is an exhibition design that evokes a middle-eastern living room: sofas for you to lounge on, beautifully patterned pillows and rugs, tables piled high with books about Iraqi culture. It’s homely, but the layout’s a bit tough on some of the filmmakers in the show, whose work only plays on laptops on coffee tables. It’s probably no coincidence that the two single most effective pieces – the WAMI collective’s furniture made from recycled cardboard, and Jamal Penjweny’s riveting documentaries about liquor smugglers and gun sellers – are given their own, self-contained spaces. Whether this is in recognition of the works’ quality, or is the cause of their greater impact, though, is difficult to say.
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A recreation of the group exhibition in the National Pavilion of Iraq at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, this show brings together work by 11 artists in a range of media, showcasing a cross-section of all things artistic in one of the world’s most troubled countries.
Much of the work is about what happens to everyday life when the bombs start falling. Particularly good are Abdul Raheem Yasir’s simple yet effective political cartoons, relying on images that speak volumes. Jamal Penjweny’s series of photos, Saddam is Here, feature Iraqis in everyday circumstances hiding their faces behind photos of Saddam Hussein. Penjweny’s two videos provide fascinating insights into how harsh life can be for ordinary Iraqis, focusing on illegal smuggling of guns and alcohol. The artistic partnership WAMI uses recycled cardboard to make weird tribal masks. Upstairs, their work continues with a wonderful recreation of a bedroom and living space made from cardboard packaging.
As for more traditional media, Bassim Al-Shaker’s paintings of everyday life in the southern marshes are idyllic, belying the harsh realities after the local population incurred Saddam’s wrath. Furat al-Jamil’s Honey Pot, honeycombs suspended above a broken pot, is a thought-provoking study of the bittersweet feelings an expat Iraqi has towards her homeland. Less successful are Kadhim Kwir’s canvases covered in vague forms and stencilled letters.
All in all, there’s plenty here to admire. And most importantly, the biscuits were delicious. A date and cardamom swirl was sweet and flaky, and the savoury cardamom shortbread was suitably short. Yum.
For more art in plain English, check out http://www.curatedlondon.co.uk