We have never met but I jumped at the chance to write something in connection to Radio Silence because its multiple formats intrigue me, and as an immigrant to the US with an Iraqi father, its subject matter is always on my mind and close to my heart. I'm very interested in your choice of title. It speaks to the medium you've chosen to explore, obviously, but it also reminds me of the profound communication gap that has existed in the US with regard to Iraq. Despite the tremendous amount of news about Iraq that is generated in this country, Iraqis are rarely able to speak out clearly, without interference. For this project, you have brought together some remarkable individuals, and you encourage Iraqi voices to be heard, to protest that silence, to commemorate what has been lost, and what remains. As you know, it takes a certain bravery even to talk about loss — both personal as well as collective, let alone to enter the uphill battle in support of those on the losing side in a war against systemic erasure.
As I imagine it in context of your other work, Radio Silence once again will bring together complex stories that need to be told, and told again. You focus attention on Iraq’s physical products (in this case radio, but also the dates and antiquities of past projects) and through those you explore the more ephemeral products of memories and culture. I keep thinking about what the special assembly on Philadelphia's Independence Mall might mean to people. So many have fled Iraq over the last several decades. I cannot imagine the extent of their loss. I, like any of us, can only see fragments, and I appreciate the attempt in your work to piece some of those together in public.
I understand that the performance will take place mere steps from the Liberty Bell, on a stage in the shape of the Ziggurat of Ur, one of the oldest buildings in the world at the site of one of the world's first cities. That’s an expansive basis from which to begin. The choice of location recalls both foundational ideas of the United States of America, and the set speaks to core ideas about Iraqi identity, with its backdrop featuring several other Iraqi monuments. And by hosting Iraqis' personal stories and melodies at a public site that is so central to the story of independence in the United States, Radio Silence becomes a process of exchange, a complex collage of histories and experiences of two nations that have become inexorably intertwined, in the lives and imaginations of so many people, in the City of Brotherly Love and well beyond.
You've thought a great deal about monuments, recognizing both the nobility and the futility in any attempt to reconstruct them. Lately I have been asking myself, how is a monument in public space supposed to communicate? It occupies a special place in a society's network of symbols and material culture and speaks most to those who understand that particular culture and its history. I heard about your new commission for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in my hometown of London, which seems so important and timely. Yet the Radio Silence project in Philadelphia deals with monumentality and public space in a wholly different, equally important way: the involvement of individual voices creates an openness, a dialogue that explores actively what monuments truly mean today — both those that still exist, and those that have been destroyed.
Someone once told me that Americans learn geography through war. As your work around Iraq has dealt in many ways with the recent war and its effects, especially with regard to antiquities, I wonder what you would think of that. I know you would agree that we need humanizing narratives about Iraq, to share stories of survival, to deepen understanding of its cultural richness in the past and the challenges facing Iraqis at present. I know that you would agree we need to provide images of Iraq that have been not been filtered through the Western media imagination, in which there is no sense of recent history — only a story about the origins of Western civilization thousands of years ago, or the story of Saddam Hussein and his defeat. What happened in between seems immaterial to the world outside Iraq.
I have been emailing with Mayyadah Alhumssi, who has designed the stage and painted the backdrop for your performance. I'm glad to be in touch with her and to understand that she shared your desire to tell a richer story of Iraq and its history than the war narratives have allowed. She has done this by depicting various monuments from different eras on the backdrop, larger ones on the sides and smaller ones in the middle, all embraced and unified by the Iraqi flag. Mayyadah talks about your project helping to bridge “the gap between Iraqi and American people.” I have been very aware of this gap in my own understanding, and to be honest for years it has consumed me, “not only as a private individual,” as Olivia Laing has written, “but also as citizen of our century, our pixelated age.”
Mayyadah's painting reminded me of the importance of sharing Iraq's modern visual and cultural history that is so rarely seen publicly in the US or elsewhere, and reclaiming, as much as possible, the cultural space that has been eroded in Iraq itself. Connecting these monuments to the Iraqis now living in Philadelphia, it occurs to me that whether a people and their culture are seen by the mainstream depends on whether they have the power to mobilize their own symbols. The problem of being a refugee is that it seems you come from nowhere. You have no representation. You are simply expected to jump, feet first, into the melting pot. Forgive me, if I'm being too blunt. It just seems so tremendously important to amplify these ideas that otherwise have so little voice.
Another thing I wanted to tell you: Radio Silence feels like an American project in many respects, especially in the way it mobilizes multiple voices, yet to me your work is also intrinsically connected to a legacy of reclamation by Iraqi artists. So many painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, and more, from the mid-twentieth century to the present, have repurposed images, symbols and fragments of Iraq’s past to explore new ideas. They looked to retell narratives afresh, documenting the present by referencing what they could find about what came before. They established a basis for recognition of cultural heritage and aesthetic value and attempted to restore dignity and a sense of sovereignty in the face of widespread destruction and amnesia. Like you, they wanted to make sure people understood that Iraq is both a physical place and also a set of ideas.
I'm sending you a postcard I found of the Ziggurat of Ur, and another of Jewad Selim's Monument to Freedom, which is on Mayyadah’s backdrop and in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the center of Baghdad. Known as the father of Iraqi modern art, Selim might be the superlative example of the reclamation and reimagining I just described. The monument commemorates the 1958 revolution and reflects both Selim’s understanding of the ancient aesthetics (with its echoing of Assyrian and Babylonian reliefs), his training in modern sculpture in Europe, and his channeling of the yearning of Iraqis to determine their own fate. It has been a fixture in the city since 1961. Mayyadah tells me that it’s the main site where people go to protest today. Selim did not live to see its completion, and although the liberation he depicted remains an aspiration for Iraqis, I like to think he would be pleased to know that the potency of his work remains, and that it is not limited to its physical site. A couple of years ago in London I walked past a demonstration in front of the Iraqi embassy, calling for an end to political corruption in Baghdad. Among a sea of posters covered in text, three men stood in a line holding a large banner featuring the only image I saw: Selim’s monument.
Incidentally, Jewad Selim visited Philadelphia in 1954, as part of a tour organized by the American Friends of the Middle East, and had an exhibition of his work in a local gallery. The only report I can find declares it a great success. That was at a moment of great optimism for Iraq. I doubt that he would have dreamed that more than 60 years later, you would need to introduce Iraqi art and culture to the city all over again.
I am now traveling in Europe, and found myself today at the Pergamon Museum, part of the museum island that features many of Germany's 19th and 20th century acquisitions of antiquities in Ottoman territories during what Zainab Bahrani and others have called "the Scramble for the Past." Inspired by Mayyadah's rendering on the backdrop, I spent time once again at the Ishtar Gate, a monument with which you are very familiar. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the one in Babylon today, which Mayyadah has visited, is the smaller reconstruction built by Saddam Hussein, and it feels odd that here in Berlin there is no sense of context, neither of Babylon's history nor of the importance of this monument to Iraqis as an icon of their cultural heritage. It is only described in terms of the prowess of the German excavation.
“As a child, I actually did not like history, especially the contemporary history of Arab countries,” Mayyadah told me. “The theme of colonialism was depressing, and having to memorize the dates of each country’s occupation and revolution and independence did not fascinate me as much as the older history did. I loved reading up on findings of the first human beings and their development, and as an adult, I wanted to learn more about old civilizations, and archaeology.”
You must be very familiar with the ways in which antiquities capture imaginations. As I was marveling at the richness of the blue glazed bricks and the reliefs of the bulls and dragons on the Ishtar Gate, I wished that I could still visit your related work, itself a reconstruction, across the city.
By coincidence there was also a small exhibition upstairs at the Pergamon about the German excavation of Samarra, another city with an image on Mayyadah’s backdrop. The capital of the Abbasid Empire for several decades in the 9th century, the wall text described Samarra's development into one of the largest and most lavish cities in the ancient world, stretching for more than 30 miles along the Tigris. (Of course, for most of the period from 762 to 1258, the capital of the Abbasid Empire was Baghdad, which stretched from North Africa to the borders of China. Culture and science flourished, featuring advancements in geography, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. It is this version of Baghdad that is referenced in One Thousand and One Nights).
You most likely know all this, but it strikes me today that no one who walked through the Pergamon was asked to connect the different periods or cultures to the same country, or to connect the historical artifacts that they saw to the damage inflicted by recent conflict.
Built in 851, the mosque at Samarra was (and remains) an engineering feat. The great minaret’s name, Al Malwiya, means the twisted one, or snail shell. It could be a seashell too, marooned in the desert. It makes me think of Hayv Kahraman, the Iraqi-Swedish artist who lives in Los Angeles. She made a beautiful work a few years ago referencing the Malwiya, and the recent fate of Iraq. It was a sculpture of the minaret, with the spiral facing downwards, reminiscent of a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Made from 1800 playing cards she printed from her own paintings, it evokes the deck of “archaeology awareness playing cards” issued in 2007 by the US Department of Defense to encourage troops to respect antiquities. A bomb damaged Samarra and its mosque in 2005, supposedly set off by insurgents since US soldiers had used the 171-foot tower as a lookout point.
The Malwiya also reminds me of art historical images of the Tower of Babel. I wonder if the European painters were inspired by it. Never mind that it represents a very different point in time or that Samarra is 2 hours' drive to the northwest of Baghdad, while Babylon (Babel?) is an hour and a half to the south, on the Euphrates. Of course, I only know this from what people have told me, and from looking at maps, in books and on Google. Like you, I have never visited Iraq.
Here is another postcard, this one of several monuments including the Malwiya.
I have to confess that once I started looking at maps and images of Iraq several years ago, I began to fall in love with the landscape of a country I have yet to see in person. Do you feel the same way?
As a child the only images of the country that I saw were those on British television. My Iraqi family members were silent about what the country looked like, about why it was important to them, about whether they found it beautiful. I had no books, no photographs for reference. The television coverage of the 1991 Gulf War might have been my first window. I can recall soldiers in sand-colored uniforms, dust storms, burning oilfields. It was only in the wake of the 2003 invasion, when I was in my twenties, that I became conscious of how the imaginative space that Iraq occupied in my mind’s eye had been dominated by media images of military incursions. I knew what Baghdad looked like after explosions and of course I was deeply familiar with images of suffering Iraqis. But I knew little else.
I keep thinking about what it means to really “see” somewhere or something, about how places are represented, and by whom. How a place is seen depends on where it is on the side of conquest, of course. So what beliefs structure our looking at images from the so-called Middle East, and Iraq in particular?
Orientalist paintings of the 19th century present vastly detailed paintings of a rich world in the East, including the Arab world, but one in which nothing changed. They were static representations that provided political ammunition for the story of progress that the West wanted to tell, to justify its activities of colonial expansion.
The 19th century French, British, and German archeologists who excavated major sites in Mesopotamia and removed artifacts for their museums did so with the mandate to fill those newly created institutions with a new early chapter in the story of Western civilization. But they also participated in a long tradition of engaging with and representing the Middle East that had complex roots in the European experience of the Crusades, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment — the contexts for Europe’s efforts to systematize the study of other peoples and places. The story of America’s engagement with Iraq began slightly later, with archeologists particularly interested in finding historical evidence for Biblical stories, for example, the likely physical location of the Garden of Eden, or more about places such as Assyria and Nineveh which feature prominently in the Old Testament. There in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania amassed collections of Iraqi antiquities through the late 19th century Nippur excavations, the first American archaeological project in the region.
Together these activities changed the West’s understanding of Mesopotamia, the land of two rivers — before there was frequently a sense in the travel literature that there was nothing in the landscape, many descriptions of emptiness and desolation, and yet there were shapes on the horizon that caught the imagination. All of these expeditions and excavations proved that those mounds indeed contained treasures beneath the earth. Not surprisingly, oil was to be discovered not long after.
I have wanted to go digging too, and perhaps I am similarly greedy. I have looked for alternative images of Iraq everywhere I can, in archives, libraries, and the Internet as a means to help me understand its modern history, to become my adopted memories. I particularly like monuments for this because they act as markers in the fabric of the city; they are agents of public memory, reference points to navigate by, even when one is imagining a place one has never been.
I look at Google maps and wonder what it would be like to walk through the streets, how many roads have until recently been impossible to traverse because of blast walls. I’ve looked for a map of those but quite fittingly I can’t find one. It’s not transparent. It’s not accessible. That is in some ways how it should be, I don’t want it surveilled, but even in our era of satellite photography and information overload it is strange not to see the evidence of these radical, if temporary, shifts in the urban topography.
The city as I imagine it is a collage from photos I’ve seen and texts I’ve read, as well as stories I’ve been told by those who used to live there. Dust storms and oppressive heat. Families sifting through wreckage. Too many clichés. The artist Mohamed Ghani Hikmet described seeing Baghdad after returning from exile as “a beautiful girl whose clothes were dirty.” He was quoted saying this many times.
I spoke to Suad Attar, an artist from Baghdad who left in the 1970s and studied in San Luis Obispo, California before settling in London. She told me of driving along the river at sunset and admiring the fading sun on the palm trees and low roofs of the houses, as the string lights began glinting over the Tigris. Elements of Iraq’s landscape haunt her paintings still. Several others have described to me the golden light in their city, and many artists have used that memory as an impetus for work that conveys their longing for home.
Here is an image of Baghdad along the Tigris and another of a statue of Abu Nuwas, the poet, who lends his name to a famous street next to the river that used to hum with life in the evenings. I realize the postcards are nostalgic. I hope to find a way to incorporate them in another project one day.
I walked around Athens today, looking at ancient historic sites and contemporary art. With all its current crises and challenges, Athens remains an idea that is fixed in our Western minds as an integral part of Western civilization, as the birthplace of democracy, for example, whatever that has come to mean. Although Greece was conquered repeatedly, there has been continuity in its narrative, however overburdened, and this idea of place and its importance has stayed whole and has been carried forward through time. Thousands throng to see the remaining evidence each day. In Iraq, by contrast, there has only been rupture.
Yet the Iraqis I’ve met are fiercely proud of their millennia-old heritage and culture as the Greeks — Mayyadah included. They also know that the country has been the site of wars and several conquests long before Western powers weighed in and that the destruction of monuments is part of the process. The empires of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Bablyonians and Assyrians all fell eventually. Alexander conquered Babylon and demolished its ziggurat; the Mongols invaded and destroyed the Abbasids’ wonder of the world, Baghdad, in 1258 (constructed by Mansour in the 760s); the Ottomans began conquering Mesopotamia in the sixteenth century and held it for over 400 years.
When British Commander General Maude took control of southern Iraq in 1917, he proclaimed that his armies came not “as conquerors or enemies but as liberators.” Addressing the people of Baghdad Province, he continued, “your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage.” The British ruled the country by mandate until 1932 and then maintained unofficial control until the 1958 Revolution. There were only a few decades of an independent republic, much of those marred by dictatorship, before the US-British invasion and occupation in 2003. On the eve of the invasion in 2003, George W. Bush told Iraqis of his respect for their great civilization, and that “the day of your liberation is near.” Today, as we know, the so-called Islamic State attempts to undermine Iraq’s authority and identity.
Iraqis continue to wait for liberty and for the peace that will help them rebuild their civilization, further damaged over recent decades by looting, by the lack of public access to cultural sites because of security concerns, and by the flight of so many artists and thinkers from the country. Hence Radio Silence. For better or worse, those who leave Iraq take its history with them. In your work, in the context of Iraq and its cultural products, there is a constant dance between the real and the imaginary, between creation and destruction: an endless contradiction. Journalist Anthony Shadid, who covered Iraq before and after the US invasion, said that loss has come to define Iraq’s narrative, and in particular that what has been lost is an ideal of a pluralistic, tolerant, diverse, cosmopolitan Iraq. That ideal is what I see Radio Silence attempting to reclaim.
Although I realize it’s in many ways absurd, I've tried to make a mental map of the places in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq that I would visit if I could. It includes, of course, the monuments and the public art, especially the statues of literary figures like Abu Nuwas and Mutannabi who would not be celebrated in the same way today. I want to see firsthand how artists rendered their ideal of Iraq into bronze and stone, engaging with history and legend, reimagining meaning for their public spaces. What might we learn from them for the future?
One last postcard for you; a sculpture of Scheherazade and Sharyrar, the characters from One Thousand and One Nights, in a park by Abu Nuwas Street. Although it’s hard to see because of the fading light, the large almond eyes on the igures evoke Sumerian sculptures. The artist Mohamed Ghani Hikmet, whom Shadid interviewed at length, was a student of Jewad Selim, and you might remember, finished the Victory Arch. I have looked at this image a number of times, but I only just noticed the young man leaning on the railing with the baby in his arms, who both seem to be staring in wonder. I send you this one because I think we can never have enough reminders of the relationship between art, narration and resistance, nor the power of storytelling.
Deena Chalabi is the Barbara and Stephan Vermut Associate Curator of Public Practice in January 2014. From 2009 to 2012 she was the founding Head of Strategy at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. She co-curated the inaugural exhibition of Mathaf’s permanent collection and was responsible for developing the museum’s public presence across several platforms, including “Pop-Up Mathaf” programs for collaborative international partnerships, c at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; and with the Serpentine Galleries and the Liverpool Biennial. She has written for Bidoun, ArtAsiaPacific, and The New Inquiry, among other publications.