With videos, painting, and a full-scale mockup of a Baghdad living room made entirely of cardboard, ten little-known artists turned the Iraq pavilion into a quirky, surprising hit at last year’s Venice Biennale.
A year later, as their country descends into war again, some of those artists are selling and showing their work on their own as contemporary art from the Middle East attracts new curatorial and critical interest.
Jamal Penjweny, who was once a shepherd in his native Kurdistan, showed his photography and videos at the Iraq pavilion and will be included this summer in a sprawling exhibition of Arab contemporary art in New York. His success has demonstrated how, for artists from countries outside the art-market mainstream, an appearance at the Venice Biennale can mean more than the late-career blessing it is for established figures. For outsiders, it can bring visibility and a big break.
“I had been making art for a long time,” Penjweny said, “but this helped me become part of the art world.”
“Here and Elsewhere,” opening at the New Museum July 16, is billed as a major survey of contemporary art from the Arab world and includes figures such as Emirati conceptual artists Hassan Sharif and Abdullah al Saadi and Moroccan video artist Bouchra Khalili. Penjweny will be represented by a selection of images from his series “Saddam Is Here,” which drew plaudits in Venice. Provocative and a bit chilling, the images show ordinary Iraqis—a butcher, a soldier, a woman reclining on a bed—blocking their own faces with a photograph of the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Penjweny, who also worked as a news photographer for Reuters, had a solo exhibition that included the “Saddam” series at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, earlier this year. A critic for The Observer wrote that his work had “great depth, breadth and empathy, taking one into the farthest reaches of another world.” Ikon, a non-profit art center, sold photos from the series for about $420.
Watkins spent a month in 2012 and 2013 in Iraq choosing artists for Venice from among hundreds he met, many of them working in the face of shortages and violence and with no infrastructure to help them make a living. Almost none are represented by dealers, and there are few functioning galleries in Baghdad, so artists are vulnerable to bargain hunters who take advantage of them, Watkins said. He considers it part of his job to try to protect them from exploitation as they begin to sell work.
“Iraqi artists couldn’t have been more cut off from the world before. Now they’re making a transition to the art-world mainstream, and it’s a really difficult thing to finesse,” Watkins told ARTnews. The only artist shown in Venice who has a market inside Iraq is the oil painter Bassim Al-Shaker, who makes realistic, almost documentary scenes of villagers in the country’s marshy south. Like many Iraqi artists and intellectuals, Al-Shaker has left the country and now lives and works in Phoenix. Watkins called the Venice pavilion “a good start to engagement with the rest of the world, but it needs to be properly managed.”
Visibility abroad has not necessarily made life easier for those artists who remain inside Iraq, where sectarian religious violence is surging. Furat al Jamil, a filmmaker and sculptor, whose assemblage of beehive panels and a broken ceramic pot appeared in both Venice and London, says Iraq is experiencing a “cultural genocide” provoked by the influence of fundamentalist religion.
“We have this immense history and culture, so many legends and stories, but there is an intentional destruction of cultural heritage. It is causing us to lose our collective memory,” she said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. Her sculpture, a quietly introspective study of traditional crafts, featured a white rope draped from the beehives to the ceramic pot, symbolizing not just honey but the healing and reconstruction that, she says, most Iraqis crave. Since Venice, she has shown her films at festivals in Dubai and Istanbul.
Penjweny’s work in Venice included two grainy videos showing risky activities: gun merchants offering their wares at an open-air market and liquor smugglers carrying crates of vodka and whiskey over the border with Iran. At least two of the smugglers were killed by customs police a few days after the filming, and Penjweny believes authorities have it in for him too.
“I want to do as much work as I can in Iraq before they kick me out,” he said.
Roger Atwood is a London correspondent for ARTnews.