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Wafaa Bilal

For the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, the notion of the personal being political resonates far deeper than a contemporary truism. Born in 1966 in Najaf, Iraq, Bilal now lives and works in New York City. Incorporating prosthetics, the internet, photography, and his own body, Bilal intimately connects personal histories to larger concerns of warfare and displacement in the context of international politics. Bilal’s ongoing experimentation with interactive and performative work through online media explores themes of prejudice, racism and violence, both in interpersonal and global contexts.

Much of Bilal’s work is informed by his experience living under the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party in Iraq. Bilal was arrested as a dissident and was forbidden from studying art at the university; he refused to serve in Hussein’s campaign against Kuwait, and aligned himself with artists and other resistance groups. Fleeing his home in 1991 during the First Gulf War, Bilal spent two years living as a refugee in camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where he cleaned toilets to earn money for art supplies, which he used to teach children in the camp.[1] Arriving in the United States as a refugee, Bilal graduated with a BFA from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, and then moved to Chicago to study for a Masters in Fine Art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003. He became an adjunct professor in 2004, and currently serves as Associate Arts Professor at New York University.

Wafaa Bilal, The Ashes Series (2003-13) // Image via http://wafaabilal.com/the-ashes-series/#&panel1-6

In 2005, Bilal’s brother was killed by shrapnel outside of their home in Najaf, Iraq.[2] Bilal had begun collecting images of the impact of war – homes covered in rubble with broken pianos and lone chandeliers at their center, bedrooms emptied of any identifying paraphernalia, and over ten years produced The Ashes Series (2003-13). These images of spaces absent of owners carry an intimacy felt through the r    emaining traces of a life once lived: dirty mattresses, an armchair or two. Each image simultaneously indicates the human touch that had animated these objects, while provoking questions of where it has gone. Bilal says the work serves as “mirrors to my desire to return home to Iraq when this is not possible, as well as to explore the duality of my life as a former Iraqi refugee and as an Arab American between two clashing worlds. Reconstructing the destroyed spaces provides a way for me to exist within them and, in a sense, to rebuild the places in Iraq where my brother and father were killed”[3]

Wafaa Bilal, Domestic Tension (2007), performance // image via http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/72/RemoteRepercussionsWafaaBilal

Elsewhere in his work, through photographs and performance, Bilal uses his body as a medium for inscribing, recording, and modifying subjectivity in the wake of warfare. The most notorious of these examples is Domestic Tension (2007), in which Bilal spent forty-two days inside Chicago’s FlatFile Gallery, allowing viewers to view his every move 24 hours a day. Through a website, viewers could also fire paintballs at Bilal from a gun connected to a remote control, and over the course of his time at the gallery more than 40,000 shots would be fired at Bilal.[4] The performance piece was a commentary on the virtualization of war, and the anonymity that this virtual warfare affords to both weapons’ operators, but simultaneously the dehumanizing anonymity it endows victims. Though his work is highly contextualized in the experience of the ongoing war in Iraq, it resonates with a broad audience through its insistence on the basic humanity of both the victims and perpetrators of violence.

Wafaa Bilal, Virtual Jihadi (2008), video game // image via http://wafaabilal.com/virtual-jihadi/

The relationship between the technology of warfare and its application is a recurring theme in Bilal’s work, which has often been the subject of controversy. It is informed by the ways in which combat has become increasingly gamified and operated from a distance, through the use of drones and surveillance technology. Bilal utilizes computer based art – such as in the 2008 work Virtual Jihadi – to highlight how military training dehumanizes the enemy through the use of video games based on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Virtual Jihadi is based on two widely marketed games: The Quest for Saddam and The Night of Bush Capturing, the latter of which was developed by Al-Qaeda in response to the American Quest for Saddam. Bilal hacked the Al-Qaeda version of the game to cast himself as a suicide bomber, highlighting the degree to which Iraqi recruitment in Al-Qaeda is motivated by fear and vulnerability.

Whereas in digital works such as Virtual Jihadi where the foreigner is rendered as an imagined caricature, in both …and Counting (2010) and 3rdi (2010) the artist renders his own body into respectively a memorial for the casualties of the Iraq War and a technological instrument of surveillance. Much in the tradition of performance artists such as Chris Burden, ORLAN, and Ron Athey, Bilal subjected himself to discomfort and pain to make an affective gesture toward comprehending the brutality of war. In a 24-hour performance, the names of the dead are read aloud by a variety of interlocutors while Bilal has his back tattooed with a map of Iraq, with the names of each city inscribed upon his skin. Then in permanent visible ink, Bilal was inscribed with the names of 5,000 dead American soldiers. As a compliment to this gesture, he began to be inscribed with the names of 100,000 Iraqi casualties, which were rendered instead in UV ink that could only be seen under a black light. The discrepancy between the visibility of the American soldiers and the scores of Iraqis – Bilal didn’t receive all 100,000 dots, but was imprinted with close to 25,000[5] – highlights the ways in which the narrative of war is often one-sided, and that many of the casualties are underreported, if reported at all, by the media.

Wafaa Bilal and Counting… (2010), performance // image via http://wafaabilal.com/and-counting/

With the project 3rdi, Bilal extended the limits of the body through a technological prosthesis, blurring the lines between human and machine. A small digital camera was surgically grafted onto the back of his head. With a USB connection, a laptop was connected to the camera, and a 3G connection to the Internet, making it possible for him to store and display the images on the website www.3rdi.me. The project garnered notoriety not only for its biotechnical sophistication, but also for security concerns. Bilal was required to cover the lens while teaching on the NYU campus.[6] Quoting Barthes, Bilal states that ““…from an aesthetic point of view the denoted image can appear as a kind of Edenic state of the image; cleared utopianically of its connotations, the image would become radically objective, or, in the last analysis, innocent.” It is this ‘innocent’ image that I wish to capture through the 3rdi.”[7]

Wafaa Bilal, 3rdi (2010), camera, laptop, USB cable, 3G wireless connection // image via http://wafaabilal.com/thirdi/#&panel1-1

To memorialize every act of destruction and casualty of war is a near impossible task, but it is often the case that small acts of tribute resound most effectively in the wake of near-constant turmoil and destruction. 168:01 (2016) takes its title from an Iraqi legend: in the 13th century, the Islamic Golden Age, Mongol hordes destroyed the libraries of Baghdad including the Bayt al-Hikma or House of Wisdom. The library was used as a bridge for the Mongol army to cross the Tigris River and the books bled their ink into the river for an entire week – 168 hours.[8] Bilal’s work is a collaborative project in restoring hope following destruction. The artist, in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Windsor, produced a library of blank white books. Bilal crowdfunded donations to replace each blank book with a new text, with the goal of replacing all 1,000 white books with new texts to rebuild the library of the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad, destroyed by looters during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Wafaa Bilal, 168:01 (2016), installation; books, desk, chair // image via: http://wafaabilal.com/168h01s/

Earlier in 2018, Bilal held a solo exhibition, The Things I Could Tell, at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery. 168:01 was on display at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto as part of From Baghdad to Timbuktu: Libraries Rising from the Ashes until 19 August 2018.

By Tausif Noor

ed. by James Elsey

 

[1] Kari Lydersen, “Shot More than 40,000 Times, an Iraqi Artist Spreads a Message with a Paintball Gun,” Alternet, June 21, 2007.

<http://www.alternet.org/story/54537/shot_more_than_40%2C000_times%2C_an_iraqi_artist_spreads_a_message_with_a_paintball_gun> Accessed 31 July 2017.

[2] Ibid

[3] Wafaa Bilal, “The Ashes Series – Philosophy,” < http://wafaabilal.com/the-ashes-series/#&panel1-6 > Accessed 31 July 2017.

[4] Kari Lydersen, “Antiwar Art in a New Medium: Paintball-on-Web,” The Washington Post, May 29, 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/05/28/AR2007052801040.html >. Accessed 31 July, 2017.

[5] Lara Pellegrinelli, “Artist Tattoos Indelible Iraq Memorial in His Skin,” NPR, June 1, 2010. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127348258> Accessed 31, July 2017.

[6] Laura Dolan, “New York professor installs camera in head,” CNN, December 2, 2010.

<http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/12/02/new.york.camera.head/index.html > Accessed 31, July 2017.

[7] Wafaa Bilal, 3rdi, 2017. http://wafaabilal.com/thirdi/#&panel1-1 Accessed 31 July 2017.

[8] Wafaa Bilal, “168:01,” < http://wafaabilal.com/168h01s/> Accessed 31 July 2017.

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