Imagine for a moment that you were born and raised in Iraq; you braved Saddam Hussein’s regime while simply trying to survive amid the rumbles of war, losing both your father and brother along the way. NYU assistant professor Wafaa Bilal doesn’t have to imagine. After fleeing Iraq in 1991, he came to America and eventually obtained his MFA. His intensely provocative performance art is informed by his experience of abandoning his homeland and existing simultaneously in two worlds – one of comfort and one of conflict. The self identified Iraqi and American artist examines and confronts issues of social norms, politics and ethics.
Ian Alden Russell, curator at the David Winton Bell Gallery, first learned of Bilal’s work in 2007 from the press and publicity of his Domestic Tension project in Chicago. “[Bilal] lived in a gallery for 30 days with a paintball gun that was installed and connected to a computer, allowing remote viewers to log in and shoot him – to shoot an Iraqi,” Russell says. “I was immediately attracted to his artistic commitment to his role as provocateur and his skillful and critically reflective use of media and technology.”
In 2011, Russell had the chance to meet Bilal in person. “Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath from Art Oriented visited us at the Bell Gallery, and they had commissioned Bilal’s most recent project, 3rdi (2010-2011), as part of their exhibition Told/Untold/Retold in Doha, Qatar. Bilal had surgicallyinstalled a digital camera in the back of his skull that took a photograph every minute; he published them to a website as a literal attempt to capture the things he has left behind.”
In stark contrast to the provocative performance art and use of technology that Bilal is known for, the photographs in his The Ashes Series are still and serene: a chair standing amidst the rubble, Saddam Hussein’s unmade bed. “In all the photographs, he has removed the human figures that were present in the original images, replacing them with 21 grams of human ashes... Referencing the mythical weight of the human soul, these 21 grams insert a human aura into the photographs, troubling the serenity of the scenes – the afterimage of conflict. The proverbial dust, captured suspended in mid-air by the camera, will never settle.”
Russell hopes that visitors to the exhibition “take a moment to meditate on the afterimages of the Iraqi wars” and “reflect on their own relationships to the production, syndication and consumption of the images that arises from such tragic events.” The gallery has a surprise up its sleeve regarding the way in which the photos are displayed for viewing. Stop through and see for yourself.
An opening reception will be held on April 5. A symposium of talks by the artist and invited speakers will be held earlier that day from 12:15-5:30pm. The free exhibition runs from April 3-May 26 at David Winton Bell Gallery.