Contemporary Art Iraq at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Gallery

‘Iraq is both somewhere we feel close to and yet a place we know nothing about’ – So begins the blurb that greets you at the entrance of Contemporary Art Iraq, the UK’s first comprehensive exhibition of fresh Iraqi art since the first Gulf War. This neat little sentence completely sums up my reasons for visiting Manchester’s Cornerhouse to see the exhibition; With a head filled only with British news reports and romanticised American war films, I know nothing of the real Iraq, its inhabitants and its art scene… but I am completely intrigued.

Contemporary Art Iraq collects together the work of 19 artists who currently live and practise in the country. The works are split into three sections; the first of which is entitled Of Time and Tradition. Here we can gain a sense of Iraq’s rich history; Aryan Abubakr Ali’s work A Year Or More (Days of The Week) references Mesopotamia’s claim to have invented writing whilst Bhrhm Taib H. Ameen’s series of posed Folk Men photographs (Kurdish Man detail, above) highlights cultural and individual identities and divides. Most striking, however, is Sarwar Mohanad Amin’s documentary Yayli which follows a proud and passionate man whose family business of driving a horse-drawn cart is slowly failing in the face of modernity.

The second gallery, which hosts The Changing City, interplay between the individual and their shifting surroundings. Bitwen Ali Hamad’s Qalat follows a man marking his passage through the city of Sulaymaniyah (where high levels of ‘personal mobility are not consented’) with a leaking bucket of white paint. In Bricks (above), an installation by Azar Othman Mahmud, we are presented with a depiction of a city at night. A reflection on the Iraqi nation-building project, this make-shift  rendering raises questions on the permanence of the project.

After these two sections, I found the third to be the most provocative and stimulating. Not surprising really, since this last gallery represented ‘Protest’ and collected the works of artists who respond to contemporary problems in their works.

In My Finger Didn’t Get Ink (above), a film by Muhammad Sale Rostamzadeh and Wrya Budaghi, the two artists host a demonstration outside a polling station on voting day. Being internally displaced they are denied the right to vote and so protest with whitened hands and features that draw attention to their clean, non inked, voting digits.

Born in Jail (below) by Julie Adnan powerfully presents the children born in jail and the mothers who must raise them within the confines and structures of their surroundings. As Rachel Hand says in her review Voices From The Gulf;

The women are ignored and forgotten, erased almost, whilst their children (the future of their country) suffer despite their innocence. The legacy of a regime has never appeared so cruel.

The brilliant thing about this final ‘Protest’ room is that there always seems to be  search for solutions and an element of hope. This feeling is perfectly captured in Jamal Penjweny’s Iraq is Flying series (seen in first image), which literally shows people soaring above their situations.

Art can often be a much more direct method of communicating broad cultural ideas, speaking on a very visceral and personal level, which is why Contemporary Art Iraq is such a vital, eye-opening exhibition for anyone interested in global contemporary art… and especially for anyone who thinks they ‘know’ about Iraq.

The exhibition is open until the 20th June 2010 and entry is free. Hafsah Naib will be artist in residence at the gallery between Wednesday the 12th and Saturday the 15th of May. There will be a tour of the gallery, which will include BSL interpretation, on Sunday 23rd of May at 2pm. Find out more at the Cornerhouse site.

By: Sarah Barnes, 03.05.2010 | Comments (1)
Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,