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Until 2011, Iraq had been notably absent from the Venice Biennale for 35 years, and then, even upon the country’s return to the richly diverse bi-annual art exhibition, none of the artists selected lived in Iraq, having fled in the 1970s. This year however, the Iraqi pavilion presents “Welcome to Iraq,” showcasing 11 contemporary artists who live inside Iraq, and make work depicting life as it is now lived in the country.
The pavilion’s curator, Jonathan Watkins, traveled across Iraq making studio visits, commissioned by the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq (RUYA), in order to select artists that could highlight the depth and breadth of artistic practice in modern day Iraq. Set in a Venetian apartment overlooking the Grand Canal, it is an opportunity for these previously isolated artists to emerge from the ashes.
The scope of the pavilion ranges from cartoonist Abdul Raheem, who satirizes Iraq’s social and political chaos with a cutting wit, to Akeel Khreef’s discarded objects found on the streets of Baghdad. Sculptor Furat Jamil, usually a filmmaker, is exhibiting one of her rare sculptures, a melancholic suspended honeycomb dripping its contents into a broken ceramic pot. Photographer Jamal Penjweny has lined the walls with the series “Saddam is Here,” featuring Iraqis in everyday places holding a picture of the former dictator over their faces.
With a continuing emphasis on everyday life in Iraq weaving its way through the exhibition, the space itself has been transformed into a salon filled with books and comics provided by the Iraq National Library and Archive, along with traditional Iraqi tea, highlighting the country’s determination “to make do and get by.”