“Welcome to Iraq” at South London Gallery

Filed in Reviews by on April 4, 2014

Welcome to Iraq

South London Gallery

15 March to 1 June 2014

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And a welcome it is. This exhibition is set up in a way that makes you feel you are walking into someone’s home. Sofas are covered with bright, colourful Iraqi throws, and the coffee tables that sit in front of them are scattered with books on Iraqi culture, ranging from Baghdad Arts Deco to more serious commentary on the recent upheavals the country has experienced. Work from eleven Iraqi artists is exhibited in this space. Fitting in and around the domestic backdrop, the work reminds us, pertinently, of the impact of these drastic changes that infiltrated into the family home. It is marked not only by the wars and conflict under Saddam Hussein, but also the continued violence in the power struggles that followed the invasion of Iraq, and Saddam’s ousting in 2003.

On my first sofa, I am surrounded by paintings of life in the Southern Iraqi marshlands. Traditional, realistic paintings by Bassum-Al-Shaker, all endowed with warmth, perhaps from the proliferation of yellow ochres depicting hay bales and straw. A couple sitting on the ground surrounded by chickens, a man grimacing under the sun’s glare as he weaves baskets. A young couple stand looking at them and I hear the paintings clubbed together with the phrase, ‘Social Realism’. It does not strike me as anything false, with a superficial need to glorify. It seems honest and loving, men and women rendered in thick impasto strokes. It is a colourful nod to a way of life that we don’t have any awareness of. If this way of life has survived the recent struggles, we don’t know, but it has been depicted with a tenderness that holds it in the highest regard.

Work throughout the exhibition continues to reflect on life and culture in Iraq now, down to the lovely touch of being served tea in the traditional Iraqi way (preferably sweet) and with little biscuits (definitely with cardamom). We see in what way it has inspired makers and creators. The tones change with the work. There are satirical cartoons from Abdul Raheem Yasir, quick black sketches that are blunt and to the point, with one showing stretcher-bearers running to catch a falling bomb. There are works that hold more confusion, a series of urban inspired abstract paintings by Kadhim Nwir hold layers and layers of colours and scribbles and letters. It reminds me of the Berlin Wall, with the different messages continually being added and covering the old. It feels as if this work is a muddle of thoughts such as this, but from one individual feeling their way through events happening around them.

There are simple yet powerful photographs by Jamal Penjweny of different people holding a photo of Saddam’s face over their own. They include a surgeon, a butcher and a woman sitting on her bed. It portrays how the power of one man can impact so many lives. The grid like display of the photographs hinted at a regular pattern that could, in all likelihood, expand indefinitely. Then, there are the sofas where the viewing is less comfortable. Frank documentaries that look into the ease of buying guns, the ease at which people have used them to kill. The metal sounds are enhanced and pierce through you. There is a video that with grainy footage interviews those who, through desperation for work, help smuggle alcohol over the Iran-Iraq border. It makes for uneasy viewing. This is perhaps the most successful element of this exhibition. There are assumptions we can make from the work we see, and there are stark realities we are confronted with. There is a great power in both.

Indeed, there is great power in this exhibition. It is trying to establish a position for the country that, in turn, is still trying to do that itself. We can see through some of the videos on laptops that people still lead their lives. They, too, suffer from heartbreak, from the strength of desire, but it is with a more severe backdrop than we will ever know. We can see how it is rebuilding and how it is dealing with emerging from the shadows of a brutal regime, and thanks to the breadth of work in the exhibition we can see that it is done through reflection, stoicism, humour and making the best of what is available.

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Ann-Marie Rayney

About the Author ()

Ann-Marie Rayney is a printmaker based in London. Recently graduated from Goldsmiths with a Fine Art and Art History degree, she will most likely be found exploring London's cultural offerings or covered in ink at Sonsoles Print Studio in Peckham. To see some of her work, have a sneaky peak at her website here. http://cargocollective.com/annmarierayney

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