Born in Baghdad, Iraqi artist Dena Al-Adeeb sees art and artmaking as creative vehicles that can be used to support social movements in communicating political messages.
Through performance, installation, video, photography, sculpture and painting, Dena’s work attempts to do just that by visually interpreting the politics of memory, destruction and architecture. She describes it as something that is “obsessing over time and space through performative commemorations.”
Her latest piece Disturbances explores what she describes as the relationship between “personal and collective displacements,” as commemorations of three pivotal moments in the history of Iraq.
The piece is comprised of three videos, entitled “1980,” “1990,” and “2003”: years in which the Iraq-Iran war started, the first Gulf War erupted, and the American occupation of Iraq took place, respectively.
Disturbances, embedded below, portrays a woman in different whimsical states, in what seems to be a visual charting of the relationship between the physical and architectural environments, memory and body.
Through her body of work, which also includes other video pieces such as Baghdad Mem/Wars (a collaborative project with Sama Alshaibi), Dena aims to create a compass of collective trauma that can be used to navigate the architecture of destroyed cities.
She examines how these memories can be exhumed by recovering destroyed public spaces, infrastructures and resources; something she refers to as: “necropolis geographies.”
Dena describes her scholarship as being similar to her art practice, in that it takes on a transnational and trans-disciplinary approach to research, theory and criticism. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.
Hazem Jamjoum recently caught up with Dena in NYC to about art, academia and war.
Here is what they had to say.Q: When did you begin to see yourself as an artist? How has your conception of what art can do changed since then? A: I recall starting around 1980, when I was still a kid. We had just escaped from the Iraq/Iran War by moving to Kuwait. I remember getting more involved in my artwork when we moved to San Francisco fleeing from the first Gulf War. In 2003, during the second Gulf War I became especially serious about my artwork and thinking about myself as an artist. It seems like times of political and personal crisis such as the Gulf Wars, the invasion of Iraq, displacements, defined my path toward realizing my goals as an artist.
At first, the art making process transcended the art itself. It was a very personal and solo process for me, a poetic self-expression; an introverted imaginative experience that helped me cope, somewhat of a meditative practice. As an adult, I began to see art and art making as a public activity and potentially a catalyst for social change, an interventionist tool towards building community. I began using art as part of the social movements I was working within. I started thinking of it more as a creative way to deal with whatever political message we were trying to get across.
My artistic process developed into art practices and collaborative interactions that are critical of the market-oriented product and the problematic notion of art as a career. I still work on my own but I love collaborating with others, it’s just more fun and dynamic. My art practice is conceptual, minimalist and aims to be playful.Q: What is problematic about the notion of art as a career? A: The politics that “make” an artist and art; the art market, the notion that art is a commodity that needs to be marketable and sellable. Art work being subjected to problematic value judgments; such as the historical Eurocentric gaze linked to contemporary neo-imperial projects as they intervene in shaping art production, the global consumer economy and the circulation of cultural meaning.
The power relationship between artistic production and consumption; visual representations that emerge and are themselves part and parcel of historical processes linked to the political economy of the contemporary international art markets.
Basically, the political process of production as well as dissemination, and reception of art.
To become a professional artist, your work has to be of significant monetary value in order for it to become “legitimate,” which is also linked to your “stardom” capital. The real pressure of selling your work, as well as yourself, as a commodity, whether you like it or not, even if you try to resist it.
You have to hustle in the art world, there’s a wide gap between creating art and being a professional artist. I’m not always good at the hustle, I tend to retreat into the artwork. I am more interested in the politics that art makes.Q: What do you think are some of the least talked about aspects of the Iraqi peoples’ struggles, aspects that people should be aware of and thinking about? A: This first thing that comes to mind is probably the violence that’s being inflicted on women and children; under Saddam as well as during and after the U.S. invasion. We have images and narratives of the torture of men in the Abu Ghraib prison, but we don’t have any of women and children. The violence against women is associated with rape and sexual assault. Most people don’t want to speak about it. An attempt to deal with this has been to establish women’s shelters, provide social services and education and training programs for survivors.
The violence that has engulfed Iraq and Iraqi society has resulted in producing the fastest growing refugee and displaced population (within and outside Iraq) in the world. The displacement of Iraqis did not begin with the U.S. invasion in 2003, though the war/occupation severely augmented the crisis. Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime, the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988, the First Gulf war in 1991, and the thirteen-year sanctions from 1990-2003, are all factors that drastically contributed to the mass departure of millions of Iraqis into the Diaspora.
The soaring birth deformities and child cancer rate due to the use of depleted uranium by the United States as well as the toxic environment has not been comprehensively addressed and dealt with. Nature Iraq is an environmental protection organization in Iraq attempting to deal with some of these issues.
The critical need for supporting cultural institutions and art organizations such as Sada (which means echo in Arabic), who is supporting creative outlets and art practices for Iraqi artists through educational programs and collaborative initiatives that are regional as well as international. Another important endeavor is Oxymoron Films, an independent production company established by Maysoon Pachachi.
One of the sad, but very important projects after the U.S. invasion, was that several international and local Iraqi agencies set out to find and dig up mass graves and retrieve the bodies. For me this is especially important, it’s close to me, especially women who are able to physically and ceremonially encounter the remains of their children and put them in the ground in a more dignified way.
My aunt lost her two sons in 1980, meaning they were taken for questioning and disappeared. In 2004, she finally found the paperwork of their execution, and she was one of thousands of people who’d waited for thirty years. Some could not find the remains of their loved ones but found their ID cards or execution paperwork which was also critical in order to finally put it to rest.
Some people would wish that their loved ones were killed early on in their captivity, we know people who were tortured for 30 years and were eternally transformed to the living dead.Q: If there were a handful of artists and intellectuals whose work you wish everyone would engage with, who would they be, and why? A: One of them would definitely be Zainab Bahrani who teaches art history and archaeology at Columbia University. Her engagement with Iraq’s ancient and contemporary history is really important. For example, her work on Iraqi archaeological sites used as a base by the Unites States military. It seems evident that the U.S. military’s choice to be based on such epic sites is ideologically driven.
Such representations and performative acts of conquest are strategically orchestrated to exhibit the US’s unrivaled power and hegemony. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US military bases were erected on multiple archeological sites throughout the country causing irremediable damage and destruction.
At the same time, there was no attempt on their part to “safeguard” the artifacts that were being looted and sold on the “black market” to collectors. Eventually, some of these valuable treasures were found and bought by European and American museum benefactors.
The work of Ella Shohat and Nada Shabout, provides a summary of the history of Orientalist/imperialist visual representations (such as painting and photography) and also examines contemporary art productions that at times reproduce and at other times disrupt Eurocentric paradigms.
Both of their work counters hegemonic discourses by challenging Eurocentric paradigms (through interrogating the colonial/imperial/geographic imaginary and its master tropes of imperial ideals through photography, visual arts, film/cinema, fiction and poetry), while including West Asian/North African/Islamic regions and their Diasporic art history and practitioner.
I look at their work as a site of reflection and inspiration. The same themes recur in all of our works, although quite differently, which perhaps is not too surprising given the parallels in our lived experiences.
So even though the work manifests differently, one can still notice how the body comes to embody trauma, memory and violence. There’s a deafening silence in the work that’s really stark, and also a certain cartographic theme, of spatially mapping.
Wafaa used his back as a site to tattoo the names of Iraqi cities. He tattooed in invisible ink the number of Iraqis killed and in visible ink the numbers of US casualties. Hanaa Malallah uses a Najafi shroud to map the remains of bodies through burning bits of the shroud. Jananne Al-Ani flies over the Jordanian and Iraq landscape and cartographically and visually represents where the body and politics intersect.Q: How do these themes play out in your latest project: Disturbances? A: Disturbances is a triptych video and photography memoir which functions as a cartographic device, charting the interconnections between three pivotal moments in contemporary Iraqi history and their relationship to a trilogy of personal and collective displacements. The sequence of spatial and architectural signifiers mark various epic as well as tragic moments in Iraq’s history, and this history’s reverberations through the body, psyche, and memory. Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers at shakomakoNET? A: I welcome collaborative artistic initiatives. We need virtual as well as physical spaces to foster dialogical exchange, workshops and educational programs. To provide insight into processes of decolonization through remapping theoretically and visually discursive narratives of representation and subjectivities. shakomakoNET could hopefully be one of these exciting spaces.