Invisible Beauty, Iraq Pavilion in Palazzo Dandolo Farsetti, Venice Biennale 2015

The Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq (Ruya) commissioned the National Pavilion of Iraq at the 56th Venice Biennale, May 2015. The exhibition, Invisible Beauty, is curated by Philippe Van Cauteren, Artistic Director of S.M.A.K. (Museum for Contemporary Art) in Ghent. It features five contemporary artists from across Iraq and the diaspora. The artists work in a range of media and the Pavilion includes new works that have been produced specifically for the exhibition as well as works that have been rediscovered after long periods of inattention. The exhibition is accompanied by a display of over 500 drawings made by refugees in northern Iraq. World-renowned artist Ai Weiwei has selected a number of these drawings for a major publication that is launching at the Biennale.

The exhibition will include a diverse range of media, with both newly commissioned and rediscovered past works. Accompanying the main show, a collection of 500 drawings made by refugees in Northern Iraq will also be on display. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has selected a number of these drawings for a publication that will be launched at the Biennale.

Iraq evokes the brutalities of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in drawings, watercolors and photographs. A major focus of the Iraqi pavilion this year is a set of drawings by adult Iraqi refugees who fled the Islamic State’s onslaught. These depictions — a hooded militant shooting a mother and child, a bandaged man whose bleeding heart is shaped like Iraq — were produced when the Ruya Foundation took paper, pencils and crayons to refugees in three camps in northern Iraq.

Of the five artists displayed, two have created works directly related to the Islamic State. Haider Jabbar, a young exile in Turkey, is showing expressionistic watercolors depicting a series of severed, bleeding heads, each with a case number (rather than a name) in the title. Akam Shex Hadi’s elegantly staged black-and-white photographs show isolated figures from communities under Islamic State attack standing with black fabric — representing the attackers’ flag — coiled around their feet. “ISIS comes just to kill,” said Mr. Hadi, an Iraqi Kurd, next to his photographs, adding that the flag was “like a snake” twisting around its victims.

Invisible Beauty
The title of the exhibition refers to both unusual or unexpected subjects encountered in the works of the artists, as well as to their invisibility on the international stage. Among the variety of themes explored are survival, record-keeping, therapy and beauty.

‘Invisible Beauty’ aims to make artists currently working in and outside of Iraq visible. It deals with identity and politics, with memory and loss, with courage as a form of beauty.

The title’s infinite possibilities of interpretation reference the many ways in which art – generated in a country subjected to war, genocide, violations of human rights and the rise of Isis – can be approached. This is an important time, as the press release highlights, to bring out the voices of those who continue to create art in Iraq, where Isis has been conducting systematic demolition of the country’s cultural heritage in Hatra, Nimrud, Nineveh and the Mosul Museum.

Invisible Beauty is like a fragile membrane that registers the oscillations of an artistic practice permeated by the current condition of the country and the state of the arts.

The artists

The artists in the pavilion represent a break – both in terms of media and of wider social concerns – from the constraints of a classical education that informs the orthodox aesthetic tradition of the majority of Iraqi artists’ work

Latif Al Ani
Latif Al Ani (b. 1932) is considered the founding father of Iraqi photography and his extensive documentary career spans from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, when it became impossible to photograph in public due to the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere of the Saddam regime and the Iran-Iraq War. A duality of thinking makes both modernising trends and the retention of ancient traditions themes of Al Ani’s work, and the Pavilion exhibition focuses on works from the early period of his career.

The photographs of archaeological sites by Latif Al Ani of the late 1950s and the 1960s rise in significance against the backdrop of current dramatic events. Back in those days, it was the artist’s intention to document a society on the turning point toward the modern era. Today these photographs function as critical agents against the tragedy of decay and the loss of dignity and sophistication. Al Ani’s work is a witness in black and white of a utopian society, a society that is now swept away by the irrationalities of war and religion.

Mirjan Mosque (1960)
Train Station, Baghdad (1961)
Berlin (1965)
Nahr Street Shop (1960)
Karkh, Baghdad (1961)
Rashid Street, Haydarkhana (1961)
Musayb, Floating Bridge (1959)
Al Aqida, High School, Baghdad (1961)
Stolen head that was not retrieved, Hatra (c. 1960s)

Akam Shex Hadi
Akam Shex Hadi (b. 1985) represents a later generation of Iraqi photography and his staged, symbolic works have seen him participate in photography festivals across Asia and the Middle East. His work, along with that of Haider Jabbar, is concerned with the rise of Isis and the refugee crisis. He has created a new work for the Pavilion that consists of 28 photographs. A recurrent motif in the series is an unwinding thread, which resembles a snake but is revealed to be the Isis flag, a continuous reminder of its ensnaring qualities. Shex Hadi also presents a series of aerial photographs depicting what appears to be a large floor clock, except that the digits are not in their expected positions. A prostrate figure representing a hand of the clock makes the works a rumination on human capitulation to time, a kind of memento mori.

Akam Shex Hady in which he photographed people fleeing from ISIS in a subtle and delicate manner. The black piece of cloth sneaks into the image as a threatening noose around the people captured in the nudity of their tragedy.

Rabab Ghazoul
Rabab Ghazoul (b. 1970) also responds to her particular geographical relationship to Iraq in her work. Based in Wales, Ghazoul has produced a new video work for the Pavilion that takes the Chilcot Inquiry as its point of departure. Ghazoul’s work investigates our relationship with political and social structures and part of this new work is an inventory of official testimonies about the Iraq War, newly spoken by anonymous British citizens. This aspect of the work highlights three of the exhibition’s key themes – art as an act of cataloguing, the correlation between the moment that a work is made and its formal qualities and ideas about what constitutes community. Ghazoul, who is the only female artist on display, has had several solo exhibitions in Cardiff and has participated in numerous group exhibitions throughout Wales and the rest of Europe.

By giving a voice to the people, Rabab Ghazoul reflects on the notion of the public and its representatives. Through the simple gesture of recording the voices of anonymous citizens of England as they repeat a speech by the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the artist deconstructs notions of truth, guilt, and responsibility.

Haider Jabbar
Painter Haider Jabbar (b. 1986) is showing a series of watercolour portraits reflecting on the Isis crisis and the numerous victims it has claimed. These works are shocking, often brutal, renditions of the fates of young men who have died in the conflict. The men are identified only by case numbers and Jabbar, who considers himself part of a generation of young men who have had their lives needlessly ruined by decades of conflict in Iraq, intends to make 2,000 of these works. Jabbar is himself a refugee, now living and working in Turkey with the support of the Ruya Foundation.

Haider Jabbar faces become mute following the brutal act of decapitation. The artist reflects on the body in pieces by making an archive of decapitated heads, victims of violence. His artistic language betrays a fascination with the work of some of his older artistic peers, but the difference can be found in the way he “translates” what he lived through in an image with universal appeal. Each ductus embraces tragic fragments of reality.

Salam Atta Sabri
Salam Atta Sabri (b.1953) has worked extensively in arts administration in Iraq and abroad but despite training as a ceramicist and drawing extensively, he has never shown his drawings in public. He produced some 300 drawings between 2012 and 2015 that he has never exhibited, of which more than 100 are on display at the Pavilion. These intensely personal works exhibit the experience of an artist striving to create under the shadow of a crumbling arts infrastructure. Atta Sabri returned to Baghdad in 2005 after having lived in the US and Jordan for 16 years, and his drawings can be understood as a diary in which the artist addresses the existential tragedy he undergoes returning to his native city.

The diary of drawings by Salam Atta Sabri. Letters from Baghdad can be understood as introspective annotations in which the tragic circumstances of a country collide with the personal drama of an artist who feels the imperative to make art in a context that is marked by other-than-artistic conditions.

Traces of survival in Iraq
A display of more than 500 drawings made by refugees in Northern Iraq – collected by Ruya in Camp Shariya, Camp Baharka and Mar Elia Camp – will accompany the exhibition. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has selected a number of these works to include in a publication, TRACES OF SURVIVAL: Drawings by Refugees in Iraq selected by Ai Weiwei, which will be launched at the Biennale. The proceeds from the book will be given to those who provided the content.

The exhibition is accompanied by a display of drawings made by refugees in northern Iraq. In December 2014 Ruya launched a campaign to provide drawing materials to adult men and women in refugee camps. Ruya visited Camp Shariya, Camp Baharka and Mar Elia Camp and over five days the Foundation collected 546 submissions, including drawings, poetry and prose. A selection of these drawings are on display. The submissions present incredibly powerful responses to life within the refugee camps. A depiction of tanks and aircraft returning fire on each other was drawn by a forty-year-old man carrying the caption, ‘Our people have only lived amongst wars and destruction,’ whilst another image depicts an isolated figure in a flooded refugee camp who petitions, ‘Save us from drowning. I am Iraqi.’ By contrast, other drawings depict life before the refugee crisis, including a shining depiction of Mosul before Isis took control and a depiction of a traditional Yazidi festival. A number of these images have been selected by Ai Weiwei for a major book published to coincide with the Biennale. Proceeds from the book will go back to those who provided the content.

This work was drawn by a 41-year-old man, depicting his city of Mosul which he fled when Isis took over. The caption translates as: ‘Beloved Mosul. We will be back God willing.’ An 18-year-old school girl depicts her best friend who she saw dead and bloodied after being having been raped on Mount Sinjar. At the time this drawing was made, her friend was still unburied. This is a drawing of the camp the man now lives in. It depicts the camp flooded, including himself and others calling out, ‘Save us from drowning. I am Iraqi.’

A pomegranate tree in the garden of an old Yezidi man forced to flee his home when Isis attacked Mount Sinjar. He recalls in great detail the day that Isis attacked. This tree represents home for him.

The Invisible Beauty of the works in this exhibition extends to the artists’ courage with regard to engagement. Invisible Beauty gives voice to different generations of artists, all of whom are prisoners of the decay of a country. At the same time, each of them believes that as an artist, one can take a position, one can assume a responsibility that is different from the orthodox belief in pure beauty. These artists are anchoring their artistic practices in a complex turmoil of loss, identity, memory, and beauty. Invisible Beauty is an exhibition that whispers, that gently articulates. Against the apocalyptic background of Iraq’s recent past, artists still find the courage to engage in work where the individual artist is independent from any form of academism, and dependent on a dense reflection on how art relates to society.

Palazzo Dandolo Farsetti
Ca ‘Farsetti (or Palazzo Dandolo Farsetti ) is a Venetian palace, located in the San Marco district and overlooking the Grand Canal, not far from the Rialto Bridge. It is the seat, together with the adjacent Ca ‘Loredan, of the municipality of the lagoon city.

The palace was built in the thirteenth century by the will of the descendants of Doge Enrico Dandolo, of only two floors.
Federigo Contarini, who bought the palace in 1440, had it enlarged in height, bringing it to its current size.

Around 1670 it passes to the family that gives it its name, the Farsetti, who during the eighteenth century set up a sort of cultural center open to intellectuals, artists, citizens and foreign tourists. In the “museum” there was a rich collection of pieces of art from various eras and backgrounds, completed by a well-stocked library.

The last member of the family was Anton Francesco who, overburdened by debt, closed the gallery in 1788 and began to alienate the works kept. Immediately blocked by the State Inquisitors, he was able to resume sales after the fall of the Serenissima.

Died in 1808, the palace was bought at auction by the widow Andriana da Ponte as a dowry creditor. For a time the hotel “Gran Bretagna” was installed there but in 1826 it was sold to the municipal administration of Venice which the following year turned it into a municipal residence, a role it still plays.

The facade of Palazzo Farsetti has a building on three levels plus a mezzanine: the first two are those of the original nucleus, with a Venetian-Byzantine style loggia at the level of the canal; the second floor and mezzanine are the result of Renaissance works.

The ground floor centrally has a portico closed by five round arches, supported by four Corinthian columns, structurally similar to that of the adjacent Ca ‘Loredan, to which Ca’ Farsetti is connected, on the left side, through a “flyover”. On the main floor, the facade is characterized by fifteen round openings with a long balustrade to mark the two levels.

Inside there is the staircase of the right wing, due to the works that the Farsetti took in the eighteenth century and the main floor hall with stuccoes from the same century.

Venice Biennale 2015
The 2015 Art Biennale closes a sort of trilogy that began with the exhibition curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, Illuminations, and continued with the Encyclopedic Palace of Massimiliano Gioni (2013). With All The World’s Futures, La Biennale continues its research on useful references for making aesthetic judgments on contemporary art, a “critical” issue after the end of the avant-garde and “non-art” art.

Through the exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, La Biennale returns to observe the relationship between art and the development of human, social and political reality, in the pressing of external forces and phenomena: the ways in which, that is, the tensions of the external world solicit the sensitivities, the vital and expressive energies of the artists, their desires, the motions of the soul (their inner song).

La Biennale di Venezia was founded in 1895. Paolo Baratta has been its President since 2008, and before that from 1998 to 2001. La Biennale, who stands at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions, festivals and researches in all its specific sectors: Arts (1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934). Its activities are documented at the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC) that recently has been completely renovated.

The relationship with the local community has been strengthened through Educational activities and guided visits, with the participation of a growing number of schools from the Veneto region and beyond. This spreads the creativity on the new generation (3,000 teachers and 30,000 pupils involved in 2014). These activities have been supported by the Venice Chamber of Commerce. A cooperation with Universities and research institutes making special tours and stays at the exhibitions has also been establihed. In the three years from 2012-2014, 227 universities (79 Italian and 148 international) have joined the Biennale Sessions project.

In all sectors there have been more research and production opportunities addressed to the younger generation of artists, directly in contact with renowned teachers; this has become more systematic and continuous through the international project Biennale College, now running in the Dance, Theatre, Music, and Cinema sections.