‘168:01’ by Wafaa Bilal: Monument to Iraq’s staggering cultural loss and its recovery

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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)
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.

As book donations accrue, these austere white bookshelves will become saturated with knowledge and color; while the white takeaway books will serve as a reminder to their new owners that not everyone has the same access to knowledge.

The donated books will be shipped at the close of the exhibition to the University of Baghdad, the University of Mosul, the University of Babylon, and the National Museum of Iraq to help with the process of rebuilding.

‘168:01’ was first held in Windsor, Canada, in January 2016 and has had its reiteration multiple times in Canada, the US, Taiwan, and is being shown for the first time in the Arab world, in the Emirate of Sharjah.

Thousands of books have already been sent to the Iraqi institutions and the goal at the Sharjah exhibition – the largest by far – is to collect 3,000 books.

Wafaa Bilal's  ‘168:01’ at the newly opened House of Wisdom in Sharjah. (Courtesy: Shurooq)
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.

Historic connections

Speaking to Al Arabiya English, the Iraqi-born artist Bilal, who is also an Arts Professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, said: “I really love the connections between this House of Wisdom and the original, and to this exhibition of mine. It seems like the past is inspiring the future and vice versa and helping rebuild it.”

“The House of Wisdom in Baghdad had inspired so many generations and given knowledge and wisdom throughout the world from the Islamic world, and I am moved to be in this one in Sharjah, and for my work to inaugurate the exhibition space here. It is very significant because of the strong connection. The place itself here is very poetic, very beautiful, and it is about connecting people,” he added.

Growing up in Najaf in Iraq, Bilal’s life, like that of his fellow countrymen, was marked by a series of violent incidents as well as a series of incarcerations, and his art is a testament of that experience.

But does his art will always be influenced by those events or does he see a different trajectory in the future? “I always say an artist is a mirror of the social condition they live in. And if you follow my career and the work I did from childhood to the present, it was always in reaction to reality. And sadly, I have lived for many decades surrounded by war and destruction. From growing up during the Iraq-Iran war, occupation of Kuwait and its aftermath, the 2003 American and allied forces intervention, and then ISIS and what is left….

Bilal says that his work could be described as “shifting from a reactionary to meditative, and to a post-conflict phase.”

For the 2007 performance ‘Domestic Tension,’ Bilal spent a month in a closed gallery where people could shoot him via a remote-access paintball gun from around the world. The Chicago Tribune called it “one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time”—naming him 2008 Artist of the Year.

“As an artist, you have no idea -- in this reactionary phase -- whether you are antagonizing your viewers in order to engage them,” he says, referring to ‘Domestic Tension,’ which resulted in a book titled ‘Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun.’

Another work in this phase is ‘Virtual Jihadi,’ 20.., which holds up a mirror to violence, racism, and propaganda.
‘and Counting…’ 2010, is a deeply personal work for Bilal, whose brother, Haji, was killed by a missile at a checkpoint in their hometown of Kufa, Iraq in 2004.

The artist used his body to physically demonstrate the pain of both American and Iraqi families who have lost loved ones in the war, but as the work shows, the deaths of Iraqis, like his brother, are largely invisible to the American public.

In ‘3rdi’ (2010-11) a camera is temporarily implanted on the back of his head, which “spontaneously and objectively captures the images – one per minute – that make up my daily life, and transmits them to a website for public consumption.”

His art then turns to meditative as in the ‘The Ashes Series’ (2003- 2013) which is also being shown in Sharjah at the House of Wisdom along with ‘168:01.’

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. (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)
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.”

Language of performance

Addressing the issue of him undergoing so much physical and psychological pain in his early works, Bilal says that the language of performance used during his ‘reactionary’ phase early in his career was “a device to generate sympathy and engagement.”

“We have to understand that with performance and using the body as a medium, the intention is not to harm yourself. It is a desperate means in a way to connect people, especially to the struggle of the people in a conflict zone, and also to connect one place to another.”

“These scars that you inherit from each work – every performance artist will tell you that – with never go away, whether it is the physical scar or the emotional one,” he admits.

“But it is also life, right,” reflects Bilal. “Life does not leave you without scars, especially when you struggle through wars and conflict, it does leave something with you. So here you have art reflecting life and carrying its scars and effect with it.”
When reminded that the Middle East has had too much of a recent history of strife and conflict, especially in recent times, Bilal says “there is always hope in every situation.”

According to him, the Middle East is prone to such conflict because of its central location geographically, making it a crossroads, and it seems “we cannot avoid violence sometimes.”

Coming to his present exhibition ‘168:01,’ Bilal says that one thing he loves about Sharjah is how this peaceful oasis was created and it has a lot to do with what the people who are ruling give their people.

“Because, without the strength of the individual, every place is susceptible to violence and susceptible to interference from outside.”

“But if we wanted to have any hope in the Middle East, it has to start from the top. We can’t ask the poor person to be peaceful when we deny them the basic things in life. The human being should be respected, and the respect is returned with an oath to protect the space and not let anybody to interfere in it.”

“Leaders are the ones who have to set an example, and countries are really a reflection of the mental state of the Rulers. The most powerful countries in history were when people were respected. We are not talking about dictatorships and where people are repressed more and more to maintain a strong country. No, we are talking of the civilization that rises because you have respect for people and you give them the space to be creative, to live and connect with each other. And at the same time, you give them the power to protect the space they live in.”

About Iraq, the country where he was born, his hope is that sometime in the future, Iraq would become strong, and in a neutral space that does not allow interference. Bilal admits that it is really difficult to achieve, given the position it is in, unless outside powers come to the support of Iraq, “but without interference.”

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