Moments of Possibility: The Art of Laith K. Daer and Sajjad Abbas
By Sarah Rogers
City Limits features works by two emerging artists based in Sadr City, Baghdad: Laith K. Daer and Sajjad Abbas. Both are graduates of the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts, an institution that has trained some of the country’s most celebrated modern and contemporary artists.
Daer and Abbas are friends, colleagues, and sometimes collaborators, who work on a range of mixed media projects from graffiti on city walls to urban interventions and video installations. As captured by the exhibition’s title, this body of work explores both the geographical frontiers of the city and the limitations that the city imposes on its inhabitants. And in Baghdad, besieged by massive terrorizing violence for more than a decade now, the streets themselves have deteriorated into a battlefield with erratic boundaries that often prove life threatening. Amidst a devastating occupation, sectarian hostilities, a brutal battle against Daesh, and massive internal displacement, the fabric of communal urban space and, in turn, civil society, is endangered.
In this exhibition, we witness the work of two courageous young artists who intervene in a city where violent instability is a persistent threat. By directly engaging the city and its inhabitants, Daer and Abbas momentarily reclaim a part of Baghdad, transforming the rubble of the city into, once again, a place of creativity and dialogue.
The camera captures the sounds and movement of a bustling street in Baghdad and a line of parked cars, the make of which is typically used for car bombs. The camera shifts to a deserted landscape adjacent to a car junkyard. Men, women, and children mill around while a group of young men with film and photography cameras smoke cigarettes and converse animatedly. One of the young men individually escorts each of the men, women, and children to a discarded tin barrel hosting a laptop computer. Each individual wears headsets and watches footage of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad: bodies lay on the ground; the screams of survivors pierce the air as they stumble through the wreckage. Afterwards, a young man with a “kayffieh” leads each participant into a defunct car, where he or she watches footage of the artist demonstrating safety positions in case of a car bomb. The participants are asked to type their responses on a keyboard, which scrolls across the screen. Reactions of the participants to the subject of car bombs range from mournful declarations to a young boy who shares with the camera the story of his relative who died by a car bomb as his friend giggles shyly at the camera.
Laith K. Daer’s 2014 video, The Border of the City explores the psychological landscape of Iraq amidst the constant threat of death. Since the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), car bombs have come to signify the violent uncertainty of political strife in the Arab world and this is particularly the case in Baghdad today: an explosion erupts on a busy street, terrorizing daily life, and leaves death and fear in its wake.
By asking friends, fellow artists, family members, and neighbors to gather in a car junkyard, itself a previous site of violence in 2006, and to participate in his project, Daer creates a space in which these individuals are able to respond to such relentless violence. Isolating participants inside an abandoned car awards these individuals, both literally and figuratively, a private, secluded space to respond to the images and experiences suffered in daily life and, even if just for a moment, transforms victims of circumstance into agents of their emotional expression. We witness in the video a sense of community: a gathering of the participants brought together by their trust and willingness to partake and collaborate with the artist as well as an artistic community among Daer and his colleagues who are documenting the project. Artistic production becomes a shared event, thereby serving as a critical vehicle for engagement with the city. The car bomb and its pervasive effects are the subject of a second work by Daer that is also included in this exhibition.
The photograph shows a young man facing the wall and wearing a bloodied white shirt. His head leans gently against a wall, perhaps in prayer or in quiet contemplation. The room is derelict: the walls are covered in black soot and peeling. Broken houseware, the only sign of domesticity, lay scattered in piles on the floor: broken cups and bowls, overturned cooking pots, and an empty gold frame.
The image described above is one of 32 photographs that comprise Daer’s 2016 project, The Space of the Cafe. In the gallery, the photographs are displayed on an iPad, mounted on a pedestal. Each image portrays the artist standing in front of or inside deserted homes and amongst piles of architectural rubble throughout Jourff Al-Sakhar, a city that was abandoned in the war against ISIS. In each photograph, Daer wears a bloodied white t-shirt, which in this installation hangs on the gallery wall above the pedestal with the iPad.
The shirt is Daer’s own; he was wearing it during the 2016 Karrada explosion. He survived but the blood stains are from those near him who died or were injured during the car bombings. Unlike the movement and voices that animate The Border of the City, a mournful silence pervades The Space of the Cafe: the stillness of the photographs; the unworn, stained shirt, drooping lifelessly against the wall.
Whereas The Border of the City represents a communal effort, The Space of the Cafe is a solitary piece, a poetic portrait of one individual’s survival amongst a forsaken city. It is also a portrait of time: the presence of the artist facing the discarded past, the absence left by death and war. In this way, The Space of the Cafe asks a question to the future: how does one go on living in a ghost town? When the hostilities cease, where will the survivors be?
In 1951 at the inaugural exhibition of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, founding member and artist Shakir Hassan al Said announced a new school of painting and described the art collective’s project to create a national Iraqi art that was faithful to a distinct visual heritage as well as being truly modern. It was a momentous occasion in the history of modern art in Iraq. Artists and art historians recognize the Baghdad Group of Modern Art as one of the Arab world’s most influential art collectives, conceiving of the visual arts as a medium through which to develop the nation of Iraq, and in turn, contribute to the project of a global modernism. Although earlier art collectives had formed over the previous decade in Baghdad, the artists of the Baghdad Group of Modern Art were instrumental in marking the decade of the fifties as a critical period in the history of art in Iraq, and contributed to the development of a national identity through the building of an infrastructure for the visual arts.
Only a half a century later, that infrastructure has been obliterated: museums looted; galleries shut down; and artists dispersed throughout the region and abroad. And yet, as this exhibition attests, in small pockets across war-torn Baghdad artistic production persists. This dialectic between destruction and creation, violence and art at the heart of this body of work has a long legacy within art history, from the celebrated paintings of the French Revolution to the embrace of war and technology as regenerators of culture in twentieth century movements such as Futurism.
Nowhere is this dialectic more present than in the contemporary art world where artists struggle to confront global conflict. In the Arab world, critics and curators date contemporary artistic practice’s engagement with war to the early 1990s, when a number of artists working in postwar Lebanon centered their practice around a critical interest in the histories, theories, and aesthetics of the archive, particularly as related to the histories of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). More recently, contemporary artists in Syria have mobilized art forms—in particular, graffiti, video, and digital—to speak out amidst a civil war that has ravaged the country since 2011. Whereas in postwar Lebanon, art focused on the war was characterized by its critical approach to the archive, history, and memory, in Syria during the civil war artistic production has been described as an aesthetics of witnessing. We might understand the work of Abbas and Daer within this longer art historical legacy as well as within a regional one: a generation of artists for whom the visual arts is a critical forum for expression amidst politically and socially turbulent times, whether during war or its insecure aftermath.
Only a half a century later, that infrastructure has been obliterated: museums looted; galleries shut down; and artists dispersed throughout the region and abroad.4 And yet, as this exhibition attests, in small pockets across war-torn Baghdad artistic production persists. This dialectic between destruction and creation, violence and art at the heart of this body of work has a long legacy within art history, from the celebrated paintings of the French Revolution to the embrace of war and technology as regenerators of culture in twentieth century movements such as Futurism.
The works presented in the exhibition, City Limits, however, do not represent an aesthetics of the archive, an aesthetics that looks back and reflects; nor can the works of Daer and Abbas be characterized as an aesthetics of witnessing, which implies observation. Instead, the projects of Daer and Abbas weave themselves within the urban fabric of Baghdad. Intimately present with the here and now, the art in this exhibition instigates an aesthetics of ephemerality, or of the moment. As violence consumes Baghdad, nearly swallowing it whole, Abbas and Daer seize a bloodied shirt, an abandoned town, a neglected wall, a deserted junkyard and create not an art object to be quietly contemplated in the stillness of the gallery, but instead forge a moment in which the city’s inhabitants can gather together around Baghdad’s tattered edges, and reinvent for themselves the city’s limits.
1 Abbas’ strategic use of pronouns echoes the work of American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, who came to recognition in the 1980s for her black and white images overlaid with declarative captions that use pronouns to address cultural constructions of power, identity, and sexuality.
2 Sajjad Abbas, “Baghdad Graffiti,” http://shakomako.net/art/baghdad-graffiti/ . Accessed September 5 2017.
3 On the development of modern art and the contributions of the Baghdad Group of Modern Art, see Nada Shabout, “A Dream We Call Baghdad,” in Modernism and Iraq (New York: Columbia University, 2009): 23-40 and Shabout, “Collecting Modern Iraqi Art,” in Archives, Museums, and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World , eds. Sonja Mejcher-Atassi and John Pedro Schwartz (England: Ashgate Publishing, 2012): 197-210.
4 For a case study on the role of Iraqi artists in the diaspora, see May Muzaffar, “Art in Exile: Recent Developing Stages of Modern Iraqi Art as Viewed from Amman, 1991-2005,” unpublished paper, 2006.
5 For an early characterization of postwar art in Lebanon by an international curator, see Catherine David, “Learning from Beirut: Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in Lebanon,” in Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices in the Region (Beirut: The Lebanese Association for the Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan, 2002): 32-38.
6 See the essays in Malu Halasa et al., eds. “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from”
Sarah Rogers is an independent scholar and founding member and president-elect of The Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA).
She is currently co-editing, “Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents,” to be published in fall 2017 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She received her PhD in 2008 from the History, Theory, and Criticism section of the Dept. of Architecture at MIT, where her dissertation was titled, “Postwar Art and the Historical Roots of Beirut’s Cosmopolitanism.”