Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Art Space Talk: Wafaa Bilal

Wafaa Bilal's art is of a political nature that speaks to the oppression of the human spirit, including that of women who are bound by the rules of culture and the horrors of war. Wafaa has won many awards for his art as well as a scholarship to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for post graduate study. He is now teaching at SAIC.

A survivor of Saddam Hussein's regime, Wafaa travels to give lectures on the oppressive nature of the regime in the hope of informing people of the complexities of the situation as well as the atrocities committed and the importance of nonviolent means of ending conflict. He has been interviewed by the History Channel and spoke on the Iraqi conflict at the Democratic Convention in New York City.

Still from 'A Bar at the Folies Bergere (after Manet)'- Interactive video, 37 3/4" x 51 1/4" images on an approximately 4' by 8' foot wall. It starts out with Manet's famous painting on a video screen. When people approach the work, they trigger sensors in the work. That causes the barmaid in the painting to morph into what appears to be a living, breathing woman (actually, a model who was selected and costumed to suggest the woman in Manet's painting.) The morphed barmaid moves around behind the bar, sometimes yawns, sometimes leaves her place behind the bar. All of these activities are prompted by the movement and positioning of the viewers which are picked up by the sensors in the work.

Brian Sherwin: Wafaa, you are originally from Najaf, Iraq. I read that you dreamed of becoming on artist, but you were prohibited from studying art in Iraq. Instead, you studied geography... but continued to create art. Eventually you were arrested as a dissident for art that was critical of Saddam Hussein. Can you tell us about those years and how they influenced you as an artist?

Wafaa Bilal: The art school rejection opened my eyes to how powerful art can be; to the point that Saddam’s regime would deny a dissident admittance to art school. Najaf was always a center of opposition to Saddam; since the conflict between Shia and Sunni has existed for a long time and Saddam saw the Shia stronghold Najaf as a central threat to his regime, he always was suspicious of people from Najaf. So automatically, I was branded. Additionally my cousin was executed by the regime, which guaranteed my denial to art school. The whole thing set in motion the idea of art and politics as being inseparable, because art is a reflection of life; and life is a reflection of art.
Still from 'One Chair'. One Chair is an interactive video installation. The project is shown in a large rectangular room. One short wall has a life-size projection of seven men of various ethnicities eating at a long table. Each individual is eating rice; except for the man in the center who is eating steak, potato, and beans. The composition is based on Leonardo's The Last Supper.
BS: Considering your past and the losses that you have endured... how have you kept from being wrathful with your art? I assume that it would have been easy for you to have given into hate and to use your art as a vehicle for that anger...

WB: It's not what we go through in life, it's what we make of it. Understanding that hate can only generate more hate and anger, I try to stay away from messages of hate and aggression because that alienates the viewer instead of engaging. Especially when we try to engage people who live far away from the war zone, I've come to understand that a message of hatred destroys our inner strength. It becomes about not the other but ourselves; how can we survive after these tremendous events we've encountered. It becomes a matter of not shedding these atrocities; but reflecting them to prevent others from going through the same thing.

BS: Would you say that your work helps you deal with those memories? Or are you more focused on the 'here and now', so to speak?

WB: Very much so... it does help me deal with those memories. To carry that burden alone is very heavy. By reflecting and sharing it with others, the load becomes much lighter.

Imbue, Lamda photographic print, Approximately 44 by 48 inches (smaller-sized prints also available)

BS: In 1992 you came to the United States to study art at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, from which you graduated with a BFA. You later attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where you earned an MFA. Can you tell us about your academic years? Did you have any influential instructors? Also, how did you deal with the transition from having lived in Iraq?

WB: At the beginning at the University of New Mexico, I had such a hard time doing what I believed in – political art. I was rejected from advanced painting classes so many times, to the point I was almost giving up on the university and about to move. Then I came in contact with a professor named Jose Rodriguez, a professor from Venezuela who restored my faith in the institution and gave me the means to continue. That led to getting to know Patrick Nagatani, a great intellect and photographer who was head of the photo department. They both became my mentors throughout my studies and Patrick eventually was the head of my honors thesis committee. Without their support and vision, the whole journey would not have been possible. Also professors David Craven and Steve Berry at the University of New Mexico had a big impact on me. At the SAIC, Joyce Jimenez and Greg Bordowitz both were influential.

BS: Would you say that your mentors influenced your teaching methods at SAIC? What do you expect from students?

WB: Yes, what they gave me the most was the ability to give but without expecting anything back. One has to be very generous and clear about their giving; that's one of the best things an instructor can do for a student is being honest and direct with them without destroying their spirit. What do I expect from students? Their best. First of all I look for commitment.

BS: Wafaa, you consider yourself a political artist. I must ask, which comes first in your mind... art or activism? Or do you view both as equal?

WB: Activist art gets a bad reputation; art is political in nature. You cannot separate the two. Even if you decide not to do political art, that is itself a political act according to Adorno. Which comes first, art or politics? I think art becomes the reflection and the record of time…but life is politics, and usually art imitates life, except occasionally when life imitates art.

BS: Allow me to ask some specific questions about your work. In May of 2007 you began a thirty day long project called Domestic Tension. This project involved you living in a gallery in Chicago. During that span of time you were only allowed to eat and drink donations from viewers... while online viewers were able to shoot at you with a remote controlled paintball gun at anytime during the night or day. Domestic Tension was a very interactive piece-- very controversial as well. My understanding is that you were shot over 40,000 times. I'm certain that you spoken about Domestic Tension often... perhaps you have further insight to offer our readers?

WB: Anonymity brings out the worst in people. One must think, if that is the future of warfare, what is our destiny? If anonymity brings out the worst in a human being and war of the future depends on anonymous technology, what is our destiny as the human race?

BS: For 'The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi' you hacked into the Al Qaeda created game, 'The Night of Bush Capturing'. Can you tell us more about that?

WB: The Night of Bush Capturing was created by Al Qaeda, and has been labeled by the State Department as an Al Qaeda recruitment tool. I hacked into the Al Qaeda game to highlight the vulnerability of Iraqis to recruitment by terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda; and the lack of a strategic plan on the US’s part to secure Iraq after the invasion and occupation. I also want to show how violence from the US generates more violence – Iraqis losing their family members are given an incentive to react violently.

BS: I understand that you were invited to give a lecture about your latest work at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on March 6th and that the RPI administration censored the exhibit and has since refused to re-open it. The censorship was due to the fact that the College Republicans called the Arts department "a safe haven for terrorists" due to your lecture and exhibit on the campus. What are your thoughts in regards to this form of censorship? Also, how do you deal with controversy in general as it pertains to your art? Does it upset you? Or do you observe it as a sign that your work has a strong message?

WB: The censorship by the RPI president reinforced the Young Republicans’ idea that art is terrorist propaganda and the art department is a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists. There is no one way to deal with controversy. The best way is to stay calm…the censorship is unfortunate because it closes off the very platform I’m trying to build.

BS: Wafaa, are you ever saddened by the reactions people have over you work? For example, the anonymous cruelty that occurred during Domestic Tension. Do you think that people missed the message that you were striving to convey?

WB: Domestic Tension became a very clear reflection of life. People acted on their impulses and inner conflict. As much as I was saddened by their cruelty, I was also overjoyed by the human kindness I encountered during the project. That's every artist's hope, that the work does not become didactic, confined in one line or direction, but instead becomes an open narrative that allows the viewers to be part of the creation of the narrative.

BS: Wafaa, what are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers any insight into your current work?

WB: I’m working on two other projects currently. One is Dog or Iraqi, www.dogoriraqi.com. I’ve been recruited by the company Torture Choice LLC to be involved in this high stakes democratic election to decide who to waterboard – a dog or a man. I was intrigued by Torture Choice and very flattered to be chosen to be part of this project. I would do anything possible to protect this nation; and this contest underscores the right of the US government and military to do whatever necessary to protect our American rights and freedom.

The second project, to be unveiled later this year, is born of my desire to unite the United States and become a father of this nation, especially since I missed the opportunity to be one of the Founding Fathers. Some people think this project is trying to Iraqarize the United States, which I don’t agree with.

BS: Finally, where can our readers view your work in person? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?

WB: FlatFile Galleries in Chicago will reopen "Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi" this summer. And I am part of the aforementioned project Dog or Iraqi, and I would very much like if people vote for the dog to be waterboarded, not me.
You can learn more about Wafaa Bilal by visiting the following sites-- www.wafaabilal.com, www.crudeoils.us, www.dogoriraqi.com. You can read more of my interviews at-- www.myartspace.com/interviews.
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this in depth interview.
Your interview covered a lot of ground in just one post. I wonder what Manet would think of his barmaid.

Anonymous said...

Wrong, as art students almost always are. Politics is about how one group relates to another. How they win or lose, how much power they can get.

Art is about the place of the individual in the universe, within the whole of humanity, and our species very definition and purpose. It is about all, us, we, not me, they, you, them, as politics is. Governance can be either "us", as that one subgroup, oralliance of them, or US as a whole.

We just had one adminstration of the former, hoping to get back to the later in whatever party wins this time, the better the President, the better it attains to US, as in the U.S. And when possible, the world, but not the Presidents job to be Pope, or arbiter of international justice.

And video is not art, but theatre on the cheap, and with attitude. Film is always at least part entertainment, though the best attains to art. This seldom, if ever, includes the cheap version.

Art Collegia delenda est