The South London Gallery presents a re-staging of the group exhibition, Welcome to Iraq, originally shown as part of the National Pavilion of Iraq in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
This revelatory and highly-acclaimed show received widespread positive attention both from the visiting public and in the press when it was presented in Venice. Commissioned by Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq (RUYA), established in 2012 to promote culture in Iraq, Welcome to Iraq was curated by Jonathan Watkins, Director of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.
Welcome to Iraq brings together works in a variety of media by eleven contemporary artists, almost all of whom live and work in Iraq. Works were selected to highlight the depth and breadth of artistic practice in Iraq, but also to expose a shared emphasis on the nature of everyday life there, exemplified by a determination ‘to make do and get by’ and an inventiveness borne out of necessity in extraordinary historical circumstances.
Following extensive studio visits across Iraq, curator Jonathan Watkins selected clusters of works by photographer Jamal Penjweny, political cartoonist Abdul Raheem Yassir, painters Bassim Al-Shaker, Cheeman Ismaeel and Kadhim Nwir, and sculptors Furat al Jamil, WAMI (Yaseen Wami, Hashim Taeeh) and Akeel Khreef. Film and video is also included, with recent works by Ali Samiaa and Hareth Alhomaam both looking in different ways at communications between the sexes.
In both Venice and at the South London Gallery, a further sense of Iraq is insinuated into the exhibition spaces through a salon atmosphere where visitors can sit and drink tea while learning more about Iraqi culture. An extensive array of books and comics are available to read, presented in collaboration with the Iraq National Library and Archive.
Abdul Raheem Yassir (b. 1951, Qadisiyah, Iraq) is widely regarded as one of the best political cartoonists now working in Iraq, responding to the absurdity of his circumstances with ironic humour and poignancy. His style is smart in the way it suggests innocence, knowing in its directness. In one of his line drawings, he takes on Iraq's inexperienced police force. Officers are shown diligently frisking a man, apparently unaware of the huge revolver in his hand.
Female artist Furat al Jamil (b. 1965, Mainz, Germany; lives and works in Baghdad, Iraq) is a filmmaker, but has been selected to show one of her rare sculptures. A suspended honeycomb frame drips its contents into a broken antique pot, in order to convey sweet melancholy, a sadness that she feels about her homeland in its current state whilst inspiring hope in the possibility of healing and new life.
Jamal Penjweny (b. 1981, Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan) has garnered attention with his extraordinary series Saddam is Here, featuring Iraqis in everyday places – on the street, in hotel rooms, in shops – holding a photo of the former dictator over their own faces, demonstrating the lasting impact of his brutal regime.
Taking Iraq’s lack of ecological awareness in his sights, Akeel Khreef’s (b. 1979, Baghdad, Iraq) sculptural pieces are made out of material taken from discarded objects. Bits and pieces of a broken generator and an old bicycle, for example, are used to make chairs, in gestures of recycling that touch on an urgent need for raised consciousness with respect to the environment and limited natural resources.
Hareth Alhomaam’s (b. 1987, Baghdad, Iraq) short film, Buzz, exemplifies the stilted, mediated nature of communications between the sexes in modern Iraq in spite of the advent of social media. We follow the short story of a young man and a young woman as they navigate daily life in Baghdad with family and friends.
Filmmaker Ali Samiaa (b. 1980, Baghdad, Iraq) presents a new film, The Love of Butterflies. It tells a story in which dramatic tension is derived from a balance struck between marital infidelity and family commitment, between a firm moral stance and sympathy.
Cheeman Ismaeel (b. 1966, Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan) is a painter who applies her decorative style not only to canvases but also to household objects, such as a television, a clock, an oil heater and a lunchbox. The proposition is refreshingly personal and unpretentious, blurring the line conventionally drawn between fine art and more domestic concerns.
One of the youngest artists in the exhibition, Bassim Al-Shaker (b. 1986, Baghdad, Iraq), is stylistically one of its most traditional. Eschewing any sign of avant-gardism he paints scenes of the southern marshlands, suggesting a lifestyle there of unbroken tradition. The recent reality is very different, of course, this being a place that suffered terribly during Saddam’s dictatorship.
The canvases of Kadhim Nwir (b. 1967, Qadisiyah, Iraq), on the other hand, are more abstract and reflect urban life through a combination of distressed colour and graffiti-like drawing. Stencilled letters and numbers sometimes convey clear messages – “IRAQ”, “2003” – or they embody a meaning known only to the artist, superimposed on layers of vague pictorial references. Such expressive and complex mark-making, in light of difficult circumstances, reads as a kind of existential self-awareness.
WAMI is an artistic partnership quite rare in Iraq. Yassen Wami (b. 1973, Basra, Iraq) and Hashim Taeeh (b. 1948, Basra, Iraq) work together to make installations of furniture from new and used cardboard. The poor material and basic, minimalist style they prefer are entirely at odds with a popular taste in Iraq for gilded home furnishings. Their ethos of “making do and getting by” – articulated with great wit – is a far cry from incongruous aspiration.