Azad Nanakeli returned to his Kurdish home Erbil to find all of the wells contaminated with waste and chemicals. AU is one among many art pieces on display at Iraq’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Fewer canvases are overflowing with pristine landscape scenes as unsustainable building programs throughout the Middle East encroach upon this once-abundant source of inspiration. Of course, land in the region has been set aside to protect historical monuments and indigenous fauna and flora, but artists such as Camille Zakharia in Bahrain increasingly find themselves documenting a depleted, shattered earth.
So it is for six Iraqi artists whose work is currently on display at the 2011 Venice Biennale. After years of war, Iraq’s environmental woes are numerous, though the depletion and pollution of water takes the prize. Called “Wounded Water,” the Iraqi pavilion in Venice doesn’t only creatively depict the ongoing water crisis that has arisen as a result of neglect, but also the sometimes extraordinary ways in which life is able to adapt.
The six artists represent two different generations of Iraqis. Ali Assaf, Azad Nanakeli, and Walid Siti were born in the 1950s. They experienced Iraq’s cultural golden age before several decades of war and eventually sanctions plunged the country into its current state.
Adel Abidin, Ahmed Alsoudani and Halim Al Karim on the other hand have always been surrounded by war starting with the Iran/Iran war during the 1980s, the Gulf war, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and then Operation Iraqi Freedom waged by George Bush in 2003.
In addition to leaving untold environmental scars, these oppressive latter years weren’t conducive to producing great art, so each of the artists sought solace in either Europe or the United States. But no amount of physical distance could overshadow the reality they left behind.
Rijin Sahakian wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue:
Water was chosen as the central theme of the Pavilion of Iraq 2011. A resource that enabled Iraq’s initial and ongoing growth, it is now in crisis due to diversion, contamination, and neglect. Its past and present life is reflective of its manipulation by various domestic and international actors, and its scarcity has caused the endangerment, and in some cases the extinction, of various peoples, animal and plant species.
Despite this rather bleak outlook, there remains hope. The description continues:
But it is in the fluidity of movement as well as the ability to reconstitute realities and find solutions where both artists and scientists have found new means of adaptation to new environmental circumstances.
Art and culture evolve alongside economic, environmental, and socio-political changes, so it is telling that artists, documentarians, photographers, and writers in the Middle East are becoming more aware of our degraded natural resources. And we hope that eventually their vision will seep into the general consciousness.
Readers in or on their way to Venice have until 27 November, 2011 to experience this groundbreaking work.
More on Environmental Art in the Middle East:
all images © Haupt & Binder