A historically resonant exhibition by American-Iraqi artist and academic, Wafaa Bilal, is being staged in Sharjah at the newly opened House of Wisdom.
The exhibition, ‘168:01’, references a 13th-century atrocity, when an invading Mongol army set fire to the libraries of Baghdad, throwing the books of the Bait al-Hikma – the House of Wisdom – into the Tigris River, where according to the legend their pages bled ink for seven days — or 168 hours.
Bilal’s title, ‘168:01,’ specifically refers to the first minute after such a loss, which is also, for him, the starting point for recovery.
In the case of Iraq, history is repeated when the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost its entire library during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Approximately 70,000 books were reduced to ashes when looters set fire to the collection.
More than 17 years later, few books remain in the library for art students to read and study.
Wafaa Bilal’s ‘168:01’ is a monument to this staggering cultural loss and a platform for the library’s potential rebirth.
Wafaa Bilal's exhibition, ‘168:01’ at the newly opened House of Wisdom in Sharjah. (Courtesy: Shurooq)
Looking to restock the lost libraries of Iraqi universities and institutions, ‘168:01’ invites visitors to fill these shelves with books requested by Iraqi students and take one of the blank white books on the shelf as keepsakes.
Wafaa Bilal's ‘168:01’ at the newly opened House of Wisdom in Sharjah. (Courtesy: Shurooq)
Each show of ‘168:01’ is site-specific, and the shelves and the books are made locally each time involving local workers, thereby contributing to the community, while the list of books come from the institutions in Iraq to cater to their academic needs.
The Ashes Series’ are a set of photographs that depict painstakingly reconstructed media images of the destruction caused by the Iraq War. (Courtesy: Wafaa Bilal)
‘The Ashes Series’ are a set of photographs that depict painstakingly reconstructed media images of the destruction caused by the Iraq War.
The reconstructed images immerse its viewers in landscapes whose haunting quality re-sensitizes the viewer to its entrenched power of loss and the stark absence of human life in these once bustling cultural spaces.
Wafaa Bilal at his ‘168:01’ exhibition at the newly opened House of Wisdom in Sharjah. (Courtesy: Shurooq)
The post-conflict phase is represented by ‘The Things I Could Tell…’ (2015), a work that links the US and Iraq while at the same time revisiting Islamic theories about healing. The work represents the internal struggle to find peace even after the conflict settles. The installation-cum-performance was “a vivid reminder of how sites of conflict continue to oppress its survivors long after the trauma has passed.”