- Published on Sunday, 22 April 2012 15:57
- Category: Art
In the second half of Wafaa Bilal’s exclusive two-part interview with Aslan Media contributing writer Amanda Rogers, he offers his thoughts on representing the United States in the 2011 Jakarta Biennale shortly before the “official” end of the war in Iraq, the impact of digital media on free expression in the Arab world and political art as a responsibility of “good citizenship.”
AM: In terms of reception, have you noticed a marked difference in how audiences have received work based on nationality, or gender, or other factors?
WB: Yeah …well, I think there is a big difference, not just for Iraqis or the Arabs but there is a big difference between people who experience war in their own lives and people who have not. For example, when I talk to Iraqis, Iraqis embrace what I’m doing, and they feel it is great. Also, they feel it is important to connect people in the Western world to what is going on in the war… they are more emotional than Western audiences, and it has a lot to do with [the fact that] they existed through it, either physically by being there or emotionally by having family members there in Iraq, and I think that is a very logical reaction to that work—how can I induce that level of emotion into my audience without imposing onto them any ideological point of view, or judging them, but rather having them experience or getting close to experiencing: what does it mean to experience some losses? So I’m trying to, in the same way I dropped my emotional barrier, I’m trying to have them drop their emotional barrier.
AM: One of the troubling things about the course of your career is the degree of censorship you’ve faced since moving to the United States from Iraq. Do you notice a difference in the sort of censorship during your time in Saudi refugee camps, Kuwaiti refugee camps, Iraq or in the United States? Is there a different sense to it in each place?
WB: Yeah, well I think censorship is whether it is in Iraq, or other places, the United States—it remains a theme. And the reason for that is as an artist I am pushing buttons; as an artist, I am really trying to expose hypocrisy and injustice and these are really difficult tasks to take, and I am trying to push the boundaries and whenever one tries to push the boundaries, one is going to encounter resistance especially from the establishment, because these projects are meant to undermine and expose these institutions, whether it’s a government or an educational institution. And I think that’s why the censorship takes place. But since I’ve been through it so many times, I start embracing it rather than resisting the censorship because it gives [me] very platform I’m trying to build for my audience to interact on, and so, the censorship remains the same: there is an opposition to one voice, and that voice should be silent.
I think, in Iraq, it’s the same way…The United States, there’s a [sort of] censorship but there is big difference between the two, really. In Iraq you risk life…in the United States, you risk not showing the work, not being exposed, or you’re silenced, but it doesn’t go really beyond that.
AM: Now we have the Arab Spring. It seems as if regional regimes engaged in their own sort of performance art by allowing the appearance of dissent to go on, at certain moments, in advance of crackdowns, almost as if everyone involved had shared a certain amount of PTSD. What are your thoughts, post-Arab revolts, on mediums like Twitter and Facebook in terms of forging solidarity?
WB: Here is what I think: I think what these personal gadgets, Internet and social networks give to the Arab world, they give a voice. I always remember in 1991, there was an uprising against Saddam’s regime by almost the entire country in Iraq, and he was able to put the uprising down because the Iraqi voices did not go beyond the border, and this is the big difference we experience now.
We have two different systems: one system is the state system, which is a single channel of distribution, but now we experience, because of technology, we experience a multi-channel of distribution which means: no longer the states could silence these voices and these voices could directly communicate to the rest of the world, and we could see how effective that video or image could be, and what it allowed to us to do in our Western world is to connect on a human level to the people on the ground, and perhaps show some solidarity, see the resistance and also generally, put pressure on the Western governments to either aid the people or stop supporting dictators. And I think that was, without these digital devices, gadgets, I don’t think the Arab Spring would be as effective as it is now.
AM: Do you somehow see the flip side of this, that trauma can also spread like that—does it invalidate the positive nature of this kind of movement? Do you think trauma itself, of warfare, can create a venue for forging solidarity?
WB: I think it is, because remember, it is connecting us on a human level, right? So, the audience, again, [is] in the comfort zone, always shielded from any experience of trauma, and I think it generates isolation, psychological isolation and no empathy as well to the people on the war ground. And because of these visual devices that allowed us to see what was not allowed being allowed to be seen through the established media is: we see the violence, we see bodies mutilated, and—always the image we used to receive is digitally altered to shield us psychologically from any effects of the war… we do share the trauma but not as the same level as the people on the ground.
AM: At the last year’s Jakarta Biennial in Indonesia, you were presented as an official representative of the American art scene at the very moment in which the “official end” of the American war in Iraq took place. Could you respond to that moment?
WB: I really don’t have a response—but I embrace the invitation and I thought this is fantastic… and it’s also being embraced by a Biennial now, you know, so I was really grateful for the opportunity. And you know what? I really believe in this country. This country, above all, gives me a second chance at life, so I always speak of Iraq and the United States, I think of both of them…both of them are my countries. So that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’ve been a responsible citizen to both countries. I think that is what keeps me going, that is what I want—it’s to have people on both sides connect to each other and speak to each other about this conflict.
AM: What are your future projects? What are you looking forward to, and what are you working on now?
WB: Well, one project I am working on is going to be exhibited in London, in 2012, November and it’s called The Ashes series. Since 2003, I’ve been collecting these images from the Internet [of] destroyed places in Iraq due to the violence of war. I started collecting them not knowing, really, what really I wanted to do with them, but shortly after that, I noticed these images disappear and they don’t register in the viewer’s mind. And it has a lot to do with ideals. We’ve been bombarded with so many images on a daily basis. So I decided to slow the process of the view down, and rebuild these images out of small-scale sets. And before I photograph them, I sprayed them with ashes, including twenty-one grams of ashes, of human ashes. This allowed me…it’s a meditative act. It allowed me to connect to the ground in Iraq, but also it’s an act of hope. So these are going to be a total of ten images, of ten places in Iraq that have been destroyed. And these images really vary: from a hospital scene, to a home, to Saddam’s palace, to a public place…So, all images from the Internet that have been turned into small sets, but at the same time, they carry literally the presence of a human being by spraying ashes, human ashes on them.
Check out part one of our exclusive interview with Wafaa Bilal, where he opens up about the personal and political impact of his most famous piece, Domestic Tension, creating work outside comfort zones and the role of art in creating human solidarity. You can find out more about his previous artwork, including Domestic Tension, Dog or Iraqi, and Virtual Jihadi at his website, www.wafaabilal.com.By Amanda Rogers, Aslan Media Contributing Writer