A portrait of an Iraqi artist in a time of war

0 Posted by - March 30, 2011 - Blog, Performance, Reviews, Screen, Visual art, Word

Shoot an Iraqi by Wafaa Bilal

In 2007 Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal launched Domestic Tension an interactive installation at a Chicago art gallery targeting key issues of morality and violence surrounding the Iraq war. For one month Bilal inhabited a prison cell-sized room with little but a desk, lamp, computer and a bed, all sitting in range of a paintball gun, rigged to fire via an online click by visitors to the exhibition website.

Over the month Bilal remained at the gallery surviving on community donations of food and seldom sleeping under constant paintball fire. 65 000 shots were fired by people from all around the world by the end of the project. Domestic Tension attracted global attention, in the media and in the art world, propelling debate in the U.S. and globally on the human cost of war in Iraq via contemporary art.

Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun by Bilal, co-written by journalist Kari Lydersen and published via City Lights press in San Francisco, illustrates inspiring possibilities for contemporary art to address key issues facing the world today, a call to action for the art world.

“All art is political,” explained Bilal in an interview with Democracy Now!, “it’s just a matter of what we are meditating on, even the fact that is a person refuses to do political art, that is a political move.”

Actively reflecting on realities of war in Iraq and global issues like the role of surveillance technology in society, as explored in the recent project The 3rd I, Bilal’s work is often interactive, educational and brilliant in concept, a unique artistic voice that speaks to the transformational power of the arts.

Bilal’s exhibition Domestic Tension, a key focus for the book, was an artistic response to the U.S. invasion and military occupation of Iraq that lead to the violent death of Bilal’s brother Haji in 2004 killed by a U.S. military airstrike.

Wafaa Bilal — Domestic Tension

Beyond the internet-driven paintball shootings in Chicago the book also touches on Bilal’s experiences studying art in Baghdad and other exhibitions and art projects in the U.S.

In Shoot an Iraqi the artist also recounts experiences in Troy, New York on the campus of Renssellaer Polytechnical Institute where campus authorities censored Bilal’s project Virtual Jihadi.

A video-game jam on Quest for Saddam, a U.S. video game directing players to kill Saddam Hussein in a virtual Iraq landscape where each Iraqi has the face of Hussein, first turned upside down by Al Qaeda into The Night of Bush Capturing, a gaming hunt for George W. Bush then remixed by Bilal who inserted himself into the game as a operator controlled suicide-bomber to be deployed in the on-screen quest for the former U.S. president.

In the book Bilal highlights that the original U.S. game Quest for Saddam, which dehumanized Iraqi civilians received no backlash a step in the broader dehumanization of the Iraqi people in the U.S. media landscape, however when the game was remixed to target a U.S. president was there outcry toward the computer game.

“Now the hunter [became] the hunted,” explained Bilal on Democracy Now!, “only then people in the United States, officials and some other people, object to the game, because all of the sudden now the gun is turned against us, even if it is virtual.”

Bilal’s art work inspires open reflection on the horrors of war through precise cultural interventions that speak to the possibilities for contemporary art to awake critical reflection on contemporary realities of war often avoided by the artistic mainstream.

“Art is meditation,” continues Bilal, “you could meditate on aesthetic, but also you could meditate on pain and unfortunately, I’m not privileged or in a position to meditate on aesthetic.”

In part biography the book focuses not only on Bilal’s artistic practice and the now infamous Domestic Tension exhibit in Chicago, but also on the life of the artist, telling the story of Bilal’s journey from Iraq to the U.S.

Extending back to childhood in the city of Kufa in southern Iraq growing-up under the Hussein regime, extending into the first U.S. military attack on Iraq in 1991. Shoot an Iraqi outlines the horrors experiences under U.S. bombs and but also under the fire of Iraqi military forces in southern Iraq when Hussein moved to crush a popular uprising against dictatorship in the months after the Gulf War, subjecting southern Iraqi cities to aerial bombardment and attack while U.S. troops on Iraqi soil stood idle.

Bilal fled Iraq in 1991 in the context of Hussein’s post-war military repression against minorities across the country, travelling the country to the borders of Iraqi and Saudi Arabia spending over a year in a refugee camp. Prior to arriving in the U.S. as a refugee in 1992 Bilal survived in the desert refugee camp working to avoid violence against the refugees via the Saudi military while cleaning toilets to earn little amounts of cash for art supplies and to save finances for a future life outside the refugee camp limbo.

In the years after arriving in the U.S. Bilal worked in day jobs while learning English, eventually studying art at the University of New Mexico and then going on to win a scholarship at the Chicago Institute of Art where Bilal currently works as a teacher.

As the Obama administration skirts campaign claims for a full U.S. withdrawal in 2011, an estimated 50,000 troops remain in occupied Iraq, this book is a key read for the year for those interested in gathering an Iraqi artist perspective on U.S.-lead war and for all those looking for inspiration toward formulating artistic responses that challenge war.

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