Welcome to Iraq at the South London Gallery is a restaging of the Iraqi Pavilion from the 2013 Venice Biennale. The original exhibition was an exercise in contrast—a casually furnished home in palatial surroundings, an Iraqi apartment in Venice. Comfortable sofas were covered in beautifully embroidered, colourful fabrics, and books about Iraq were scattered over tables alongside the artwork. In the South London Gallery the exhibition has to work harder to make the vast gallery space welcoming and ripe for encouraging dialogue, but the curiously charming arrangement of furniture along with the delicious Iraqi biscuits and tea succeed in making the show oddly inviting.
In fact, almost everything about the exhibition is a surprise—from its layout, to the variety of work, to the lack of overtly political or pointedly critical pieces. The curator, Jonathan Watkins, spent much time in Iraq trying to find artists actually resident there. As that is its only unifying factor, the show is hard to pin down thematically, and not all works are successful in their own right. But what Welcome to Iraq does attempt is to address Iraq and Iraqi life—not the Iraq of CNN, Western literature or reportage, but the country as lived in and worked in today by artists. Where the exhibition is successful is in its ability to shatter preconceptions with subtlety. Its downfall is that its subtlety requires time spent with it.
Installation view of Welcome to Iraq; Courtesy South London Gallery
The gallery’s large room is divided into smaller areas that hint at domestic spaces and invite you to stay in them. The figurative acrylic paintings of Bassim Al-Shaker look at home on the walls. They depict a simple countryside Iraqi existence far removed from the familiar media image of military, insurgents and the devastation of IEDs. In the context of the exhibition, the images are extraordinary because of their disconcerting ordinariness.
The layout of the exhibition with grouped furniture and tables should encourage debate, but being London and not the biennale, it is unlikely you’ll manage to strike up a conversation with a stranger. No matter, as enjoying Iraqi tea and biscuits in silence will let you study the artist duo WAMI’s works without interruption—mask-like images made from card and bottle-tops, which strangely recall Bauhaus exercises in form. However, it is the duo’s installation in the upper gallery that completely steals the show. The pair created the contents of an apartment entirely from cardboard, complete with radio playing traditional Iraqi music—a mash-up of high design and cobbled together objects in stunning attention to detail. The exquisite material frugality is the only hint of wartime necessity.
Abdul Raheem Yassir, Untitled, Ink on Paper, 21 x 29.7cm; Courtesy South London Gallery
Only a few of the artists explicitly deal with politics or war, and their approaches are markedly different. Abdul Raheem Yassir brings humour to horror in his witty, satirical cartoons, whereas Jamal Penjweny’s two videos There, the Gun and Another Life (both 2010) are blunt instruments, poignant examples of how a simple documentary style can illuminate impossibly difficult issues through simple reportage. There, the Gun is mostly filmed from behind a market stall casually selling Kalashnikovs to all and sundry. Another Life follows a group of men smuggling alcohol into Iran, candidly speaking about their slim chances of survival.
Among the many books lying around is a large glossy book called Art in Iraq Today. The introduction presents a story of artists’ necessary escape in order for educational and artistic growth. Many of the books you are free to browse present the idea of Iraq as a place that was culturally and historically rich, then crushed by a repression that has destroyed culture and therefore freedom of thought. While Welcome to Iraq is a gallant attempt at illuminating a different narrative for its contemporary artists, it’s hard not to feel that in restaging the show in the UK—a key player in the invasion of Iraq—the ongoing crippling effects of the war is the elephant in the room, and everyone’s being really polite about it.
[Image on top: WAMI (Yaseen Wami and Hashim Taeeh), Untitled (various works), 2013, Cardboard and mixed media, dimensions variable; Courtesy South London Gallery]