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Photograph by Um Mohammed/Index on Censorship/Open Shutters
Underbelly: Photographer Um Mohammed writes of this photo: 'This is old Basra. ... I remember how I loved its houses and its balconies. ... Nothing is left of it but ruin and destruction. Every day the river shrinks—it's full of garbage.'

"Iraq: Reframed" at Montalvo Arts Center

Contemporary Iraqi art, photography, hip hop and politics get an airing this fall and winter.

By Steve Hahn

Bob Sain scrutinized the wall-size map hanging from the ceiling of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he directed the interdisciplinary lab program. Large dots indicated the most prominent cities: Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, Basra. Nowhere on the map was there any mention of Iraq. Instead, the block letters read "ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIAN ART." Sain was not pleased. The year was 2003, and America and its allies had just entered week one of "shock and awe," littering Iraq with some of the most powerful conventional bombs known to man. But the assembled art historians would be limiting their discussions to ancient artifacts from a time before the nation of Iraq even existed.

"I wanted to run up to the map and slap a big 'IRAQ' sticker on it," recalls Sain, sitting in the executive director's office at Montalvo Arts Center four years later. "Everyone was robbed of an opportunity for meaningful discussion that night."

With the "Iraq: Reframe" series of exhibits coming to Saratoga's Montalvo Arts Center over the next six months, Sain hopes to present a "test case" for a new, more dynamic way of presenting art within its real-world context. The series begins this week with the Oct. 13 performance by conscious Iraqi hip-hop artist The Narcicyst and runs the gauntlet of artistic genres. In keeping with the commitment to actively engage viewers, the series will also include numerous lectures on art, politics and culture in Iraq.

The art pieces accompanying the lecture series attempt to nudge viewers used to associating Iraq with daily body counts to consider the day-to-day experiences of the average Iraqi. Few Iraqi artists are more interested in conveying this experience than Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi refugee who willingly spent May of this year inside a Chicago art center with a paintball gun pointed at him. The gun was remotely operated; anyone with an Internet connection was able to aim and shoot patriotic yellow paintballs "at an Iraqi." That internationally recognized installation drew attention to the disconnect between helpless Iraqis and emotionally disconnected soldiers, generals and news viewers who experience the war a bit too much like a video game.

This time around, Bilal has constructed a traditional Iraqi house on Montalvo's front lawn mimicking the one he was forced to build in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp after his public expressions decrying the invasion of Kuwait got him run out of Iraq. The house is made from a simple mixture of clay, sand, rocks and water. It was phased out with Iraqi modernization, but years of war and sanctions brought it back, making it a symbol of Iraq's deteriorating physical and political infrastructure.

The disconnect Bilal explores in this exhibit is between comfort zones enjoyed by the American public and conflict zones wreaking havoc on the psychological well-being of Iraqis and coalition soldiers.

"What I'm trying to do here is to bring the comfort zone and the conflict zone together," says Bilal. "I thought that to bring the two worlds together I could bring whatever exists in that reality of Iraq into Saratoga."

To drive home his point, Bilal was even planning on destroying the house in a fiery explosion on opening night, but after hesitant mutterings from some in the Montalvo management, he has shifted gears and will allow people to vote on whether or not to blow the house up in March, the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion.

"Sometimes we think about the Iraqi losses," says Bilal. "But people have not faced that reality of all the losses that exist in a conflict zone. The fact is that people in Iraq have not even had time to process these losses because they're so embedded in the conflict zone and are in survival mode. ... But when the dust settles and they drop their guard, the sense of loss rushes in."

Meanwhile, the rich legacy of artistic production within Iraq is being dismantled as academics are threatened with death or kidnapping and famous artworks continue to be looted or destroyed. This troubling pattern will be a central focus of the "Iraq: Reframe" lecture series with Dr. Nada Shabout, an expert in Iraqi art history visiting Montalvo twice during the series (the first time on Nov. 3), and a March visit by Matthew Bogdanos, the American colonel charged with investigating the 2003 looting of the National Museum of Iraq.

During the bombing and looting of the museum, all paper archives went up in flames, paintings were stolen and then sold on the street corner, frames were used for firewood and sculptures were smashed.

"We're talking about a collection that is somewhere between seven and eight thousand works, between paintings, sculpture, statues, photography, prints and so on," explains Dr, Shabout.

While a portion of the collection was recovered, there are still over 5,000 art pieces predicted missing or destroyed. The importance of these works cannot be stressed enough, says Shabout, an assistant professor of art history at the University of North Texas. Nothing less than the heritage of the cradle of civilization is at stake.

"Think of it," Shabout says. "In 1,000 years people will want to have access to our collective human heritage. If you think of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., or MOMA in New York being destroyed, what would be the loss of our heritage?"

Yet another loss to Iraq involves the multiple freedoms once afforded to women, who are now being increasingly trapped in their own homes as hard-line Islamist groups fill the power vacuum created by the American-led invasion. British photojournalist Eugenie Dolberg, in an effort to resuscitate the voices of these Iraqi women and present the situation "on the ground"—as opposed to the view from the Green Zone—started handing out cameras to untrained Iraqi women from all creeds and classes.

"Every single woman has this amazing story. It's like the whole history of Iraq emerged through these common threads of every story," says Dolberg, whose "Open Shutters Iraq" exhibit will be on display from Nov. 9 to Jan. 2. "Something awful would happen at every point, whether through the sanctions or the war, in this very personal way. I hope that the medium of photography can create a civilian dialogue and refresh people who can understand that there are real people living in Iraq. It can become so dehumanized in the media."

Other events to look out for in the series include a Nov. 2 lecture by Dr. Shashi Tharoor, former U.N. undersecretary general, and a presentation of short films made by Iraqi film students.

For a complete listing of 'Iraqi: Reframe' events, visit

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