Showing the ‘new face’ of Iraqi art at Venice Biennale 2013

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Iraqi talent has found a foothold at 2013’s Venice Biennale; an international arts festival established in 1895 and widely recognized as a seminal event in the art world.

Held once every two years, the 55th Venice Biennale, entitled Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, or The Encyclopedic Palace, began on June 1 and is set to run until November.


“We in the [art] industry countdown to this event for months, even years. It’s an important coming together of international art, artists , buyers and sellers,” explained Wendi Norris, owner of San Francisco’s WendiNorris gallery, who are also present at the Biennale.


This year, the Venice Biennale is hosting 77 pavilions, showcasing creativity from countries around the world.

“The competition to be seen is incredible, curators and artists put in a lot of effort to prepare for this event, it’s one of the ‘big ones’,” Norris told Al Arabiya English.

In light of the importance of this event, and the scale of international participation, “it is impressive that the Iraqi pavilion has put on such a wide display of homegrown work, more than any other Arab country that I’ve seen so far,” added featured Iraqi artist, Jamal Penjweny.

The Iraqi national pavilion, set up in Ca’ Dandolo, a 16th century building never before used as an exhibition space, features 11 contemporary artists working across a wide range of media.

Penjweny puts the large exhibition down to the “passion we Iraqis have about art.”

“We have a lot to say about our country, we want to show Iraq through our eyes,” he told Al Arabiya English.

The pavilion was commissioned by the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, an Iraqi registered non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 2012 by independent art and culture enthusiasts, according to the pavilion’s website.

“Ruya took artists from within Iraq to the Biennale. I don’t think many people outside Iraq knew about our artists,” Bassem al-Shaker, born in 1986 and the youngest of Iraq’s artists featured at the Biennale, said in an interview with the Iraqi pavilion’s media team.

Iraq’s exhibition is curated by Jonathan Watkins, Director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England and curator of a number of international exhibitions including 2007’s Palestinian Biennial and 2010’s Beijing Biennale.

“He has a good eye,” stated Penjweny, “we [the artists] feel satisfied with the final result of our national pavilion.”

Jamal Penjweny and the truth about Iraq

“I am very happy to be able display my work at this forum,” said the artist, born in 1981 in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.

His display consists of a series of photos depicting Iraqis in everyday places – on the street, in hotel rooms, in shops – holding a photo of the former dictator over their own faces, “to demonstrate the lasting impact of his regime,” explained Penjweny.


The body of photography is called “Saddam is Here,” and showcases Penjweny’s skill with a camera. Various photographs taken by the artist have been used to illustrate reports on Iraq in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The National Geographic.

“Saddam is Here” is accompanied by two short films documenting the activities of smugglers, illegally trading weapons and alcohol at the border between Iraq and Iran.

“My school was just few kilometers away from the Iranian border,” explained Penjweny, “that is why the crossing is a recurring theme in my adult work.”

Besides Penjweny, the Iraqi pavilion showcases other artists working across a wide range of media, including photography, drawing, painting, video, installation, sculpture, and textiles.

These include the artistic duo WAMI, Yaseen Wami and Hashim Taeeh, who work with cardboard to create 3-D figures and Furat al-Jamil, who, having been born in Germany, finds herself “very much part of both countries,” according to the Iraqi pavilion’s webpage.


Artists Abdul Raheem Yassir, Akeel Khreef, Cheeman Ismaeel, Hareth Alhommam and Kadhim Nwir are also featured in Iraq’s national pavilion. They were chosen “after many studio visits, meetings and much careful thinking,” stated the pavilion’s webpage.

“It is so important for all of us to be at the Biennale,” said Penjweny, “we are showing the new face of Iraq, not the country which is shown in the media, all the media cares about is the morbid side of Iraq, ruined by war.

“We are sharing the view from inside [Iraq], the real life and times of this country. The Venice Biennale is a good step for us to share our message with the world, to share the truth,” concluded Penjweny.

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