In November 2014, Philippe Van Cauteren, curator of the Iraq Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, travelled to Baghdad with RUYA’s chairman Tamara Chalabi. There, they met artists in their studios, and visited the city’s cultural institutions and galleries. As well as mentoring the artists, RUYA hosted a day long symposium on international contemporary art in Baghdad, where Philippe gave a presentation, as well as meeting with writers and intellectuals from across the country. He speaks to RUYA about his trip.

Why were you in Baghdad, and what did you there? Art can be considered an urban practice – at least that’s the way I look at it – so I spent some time in Baghdad last month, to research and curate the Iraq Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. I visited artists in their homes and studios, to discover the local gallery scene as well as institutions like the College of Fine Arts, the Museum of Modern Art and the Iraq Museum. I got an exhaustive impression of the contemporary art scene in Baghdad, and how contemporary art is looked at and appreciated in the city. Furthermore, RUYA’s gathering of writers, intellectuals and critics from Babylon, Najaf, Erbil and Baghdad itself gave me insights into cultural life in other parts of the country.

‘I do believe artists in Iraq can help rebuild society.’

What struck you most about the city in your first few days? It wasn’t until I got back to Belgium that I could reflect on my impressions of the trip. Many experiences seemed unreal at the time. It was as if something was not right in my perception of the urban space. Baghdad is a city dictated and organized by an interval of checkpoints, by the presence of the military, by unspoken forms of danger and violence. A street is not a street, and a square seems not to be a square. All the elements that make a city are possible zones of terror and violence. There is no city in the world where concrete walls are so enmeshed in daily life as in Baghdad. I was mostly struck by the people I met and their stories. They had all been victims of violence in one form or another.


At sculptor Ahmad Abdul Razzaq’s studio in Baghdad

What was the aim of your visit to artist’s studios? How was it achieved? There is no better way to judge the work of an artist than having it in front of your eyes, so we visited artists in their studios. To hear the artist talk, to watch him/her move around, also tells me how a work should be understood. I wasn’t just scouting talent for the Venice Biennale, I tried to absorb as much as possible in order to make have a clear, modest and honest understanding of Baghdad’s artistic output for 2014. Though what I saw was just a small sample of what was happening in the city, RUYA’s extensive database of Iraqi artists was useful for my initial research.


At the Akkad Gallery, Baghdad.

What ideas or themes were you looking for, to prepare for the Iraq Pavilion? I am never looking for something, I just find. I am paraphrasing Pablo Picasso if I am correct. I do not want to put myself next to this absolute genius, but preparing an exhibition is not an exercise where you match colours with patterns. Of course one has an idea and theme in mind. But for me it is the artist that matters in the first place. So I was looking for artists, and many of them were interesting.

‘An art school should be a place which inspires to create and innovate. It should be an exercise in freedom.’

You visited the college of Fine Arts. What were your impressions on the arts education in Baghdad? Why? On my visit to the College of Fine Arts, I experienced an total paradox. There could not be a wider distance between the rhetoric of the College rector claiming that this was one of the nec plus ultra institutions in the Middle East, and the actual practice I discovered in the studios and seminars there, where the education and training was still very classical. An art school should, of course, be a place for young artists to learn certain techniques. But more importantly, it should provide a context where experimentation and failure are embraced in order to develop different artistic forms. It should be an open source for vivid discussions on what it means to be an artist and help young artists to reflect on their position within society. It should be a place which inspires to create and innovate. More than an exercise in orthodoxy, a college should be an exercise in freedom.

At the restoration department of the Museum of Modern Art

Philippe Van Cauteren and RUYA’s Tamara Chalabi at the restoration department of the Museum of Modern Art

Why is it important to promote the arts and culture in Iraq? I have the strong and naive belief that arts and culture should be more at the centre of every society, not just in Iraq. The arts can cultivate forms of tolerance and understanding towards each other. Their powers are transformative. They can fight amnesia and oblivion. I do believe that artists in Iraq can help rebuild society. Even if art is considered a soft sector, it nevertheless has the capacity to talk as well as the economy, the religious or political sphere. To do this, the artist has to be convinced that his or her task is not just making nice, pleasant and pretty decorative images, but that he or she has the capacity to say something through the formal and aesthetic language of art. This takes courage, especially in a complex country that has been torn apart like Iraq.

For many in Iraq, the concept of a curator is unknown, how would you best explain it to them, especially in the context of a cultural art scene that has been primarily state driven until now? Making exhibitions is a profession in itself. It involves more than just hanging works randomly around in a space, which is what I saw in many galleries in Baghdad. There are plenty of ways and possibilities to select an artist’s works for an exhibition. It is the task of the curator to make the right selections, to articulate the theme of an exhibition or to contextualize the work of an artist. It is through a precise spatial distribution of the art works that content and meaning is generated.  In the word curator one can read the latin word curare which means to take care. Art works and artists are being taken care of by the curator, who is a mediator between the spectators and the artist. It is the curator’s sensibility which enables the art work to be properly displayed and understood in relation to an art historical and societal context.

‘Sometimes you only need a stone and your own hair to make a fantastic artwork.’

What do you think, as a foreigner to Iraq you bring with your international expertise to the Iraqi pavilion? How do you see this interaction and interpretation on an important platform such as Venice? Viewing the works as an outsider and foreigner, I was able to give new insights which transcend the classical narrative on Iraqi art, as well as stereotypes which prevail among institutions in Iraq. I tried to find ways to connect the work of Iraqi artists to a wider international discourse on contemporary art, which they had not been exposed to. I believe that the perspective of an outsider can generate a better understanding of the qualities and special features of contemporary art in Iraq. An outsider is not limited by local artistic disputes or themes, their only guideline is artistic quality. The Venice Biennial is an important platform to inform an international professional audience about contemporary art in Iraq. It is still considered as one of the main events of the contemporary art world. So this is an excellent opportunity for Iraqi artists.

How did you prepare for the symposium hosted by RUYA? What topics or issues were you trying to tackle? RUYA hosted a symposium on contemporary art on my last day, open to artists from across the country. I was asked to give a presentation on international contemporary art practice. It was a road trip through the last 30 years in art history. I included three earlier historical moments: Marcel Duchamp, Eduard Manet and Kasimir Malevitch. I consider these artists as endpoints and starting points at the same time, I used their work because I wanted to close doors and open new ones. I had no specific topics, but I had some serious preoccupations.  In Iraq, painting is still the main artistic paradigm through which everything else is being judged, so I included different painterly positions in the lecture. I personally like painting a lot. Secondly I gave examples of artists where there was a clear relationship between their work and their social context. I wanted to show that art is not (only) an escapist practice: art is way of speaking. Art is a language. And thirdly, I wanted to show that sometimes you only need a stone and your own hair to make a fantastic artwork.

What was the most significant part of the event? Why? I was touched, even moved, when an older artist told me that the last event like this in Baghdad was a lecture by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956. Whether or not this is true, it showed the absence of a dialogue between Iraq and the international art scene. I understood how heavy it must have been for the inhabitants of Iraq to be cut out from the rest of the world for so long, for so many reasons. I have a deep respect for the courage of these artists and people who nevertheless continue to work in often difficult, even impossible, conditions.  This is probably why the lecture stretched out into the afternoon. It is not every day that I can speak to an audience so eager to know, to absorb, and to devour.

How will you continue the work you started on your trip to Baghdad?  I will stay in touch with these artists, thanks to RUYA. I have promised to send many of them information about international artists that I think might inspire them further. I feel like my responsibility extends beyond the Venice Biennale. I have made a personal commitment to share my experience and knowledge with the artists I have met. I’ll do this in a critical but constructive mode.

How have your ideas for the Pavilion changed, since your visit to Iraq? It is for me to know and for you to find out! I cannot say anything on the pavilion and the chosen tracks for now.