Ikon Director prepares to open major exhibition of Iraqi art

Ikon Gallery Director Jonathan Watkins is preparing to open his most challenging exhibition to date – the official Iraqi Pavilion at the world renowned Venice Biennale.


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The artists whose work will be displayed include Jamal Penjweny’s whose photographic series features Iraqis in everyday places

For several months, Watkins has worked with the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq (RUYA) to select a group of eleven contemporary Iraqi artists living in Iraq, whose paintings, photography, films, sculpture and drawings will shortly be displayed in Venice.

Iraq at present is a place more or less without cultural infrastructure. There are no ‘go-to’ curators or critics in Baghdad or Basra to provide guidance, and very few people on the outside know anything about what is happening within the art world inside the country. The selection process therefore required a series of visits to artists’ studios in Baghdad, Basra, the province of Babylon and Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, a process which was fraught with logistical and security concerns.  The research undertaken for this exhibition means that thousands of people attending the Venice Biennale will be able to see work from Iraq that could never have been seen before.

Jonathan Watkins says, “The logistics of this project have been daunting. The security required for research – bullet-proof cars, soldiers, bomb-proof accommodation etc – is just the beginning of the story. Then there is the business of negotiating travel arrangements for the artists (visas etc) and transport out of a country that is peppered with check-points. The artists we met, on the whole, were incredibly generous and gracious. They were as candid about their circumstances as they were hopeful for a better future in which they can be more in touch with the outside world. They work in terrible isolation, but keep on going.”

The artists whose work will be displayed include Jamal Penjweny (b. 1981, Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan), whose photographic series features Iraqis in everyday places – on the street, in hotel rooms, in shops – holding a photo of the former dictator over their own faces, demonstrating the lasting impact of his brutal regime. Abdul Raheem Yassir (b. 1951, Qadisiyah, Iraq) is widely regarded as one of the best political cartoonists now working in Iraq, responding to the absurdity of his circumstances with ironic humour and poignancy. The eleven chosen artists –  including two women – together represent two generations and many regions of the country.

Watkins continued, “As much as possible the Iraqi Pavilion will embody the nature of everyday life as it is lived now in Iraq – both within and beyond the art world there, such as it is. We envisage a celebration of creativity in all forms, at every level of society.”

Tamara Chalabi, Chairman of RUYA, commented on the selection of Jonathan Watkins saying: “Jonathan’s approach to the commission is both highly creative and nuanced. Weaving the different strands of what defines Iraqi art today is a challenge. We are delighted to have a curator on board who has such extensive experience of working on landmark projects and will place contemporary artistic practice in Iraq within the wider international context.”

Jonathan Watkins in Iraq

Jonathan Watkins in Iraq

Jonathan Watkins has been Director of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, since 1999. Previous positions include Curator of the Serpentine Gallery (1995-1997) and Director of Chisenhale Gallery (1990-1995). He has curated a number of significant international exhibitions including the Guangzhou Triennial (2012); Shanghai Biennale (2006); Tate Triennial (2003) and the Biennale of Sydney (1998).

Welcome to Iraq opens at the Venice Biennale on 1 June 2013.

About the Venue

Welcome to Iraq will be held at Ca’ Dandolo on the Grand Canal, a 16th century building that has not been used as a pavilion before during a Venice Biennale. The domestic atmosphere of the building will be retained to a large extent through the use of existing furniture and minimal imposition on current architectural features.

Key facts

Exhibition Name: Welcome to Iraq
Exhibition Dates:  1 June – 24 November 2013
Opening Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 6pm
Location: Ca’ Dandolo, Grand Canal, San Polo 2879, Venice
Vaporetto: San Tomà
Website: www.theiraqpavilion.com