Tamara Chalabi on ISIS Destruction, the Ruya Foundation, and Commissioning the Iraqi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

In the face of ISIS destruction, promoting art in Iraq is crucial.

Ruya Foundation co-founder, Tamara Chalabi Photo courtesy Ruya Foundation

Historian and writer Tamara Chalabi is the chairwoman and a co-founder of the Ruya Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting contemporary culture in Iraq, and building bridges to the international art world.

The Ruya Foundation’s mission has become increasingly significant—and more difficult—in light of the recent rise in jihadist violence, a time in which priorities naturally shift away from the arts.

Launched in 2012, the Ruya foundation has been in charge of commissioning the Iraqi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale since 2013. The Iraqi Pavilion turned out to be one of that year’s more talked-about off-site exhibitions, and the foundation will shortly announce the participating artists in the pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Chalabi argues that for a country that hasn’t quite stepped out of the shadows of its previous draconian regime and that is stricken by violent conflict, the promotion of culture is not a luxury, but an inseparable aspect of a struggle for existence.

The UN has called for international mobilization to act against the “cultural cleansing” in Syria and Iraq. As more sites are at risk, what are the reactions from within Iraq?
What’s happening right now is a cultural destruction of the first degree. It’s horrific. It’s cultural cleansing, the equivalent of ethnic cleansing, which is also happening again (see UNESCO Chief Decries ISIS “Cultural Cleansing” in Erbil Speech and Islamic State Continues Cultural Genocide in Iraq). These sites belong to humanity, they are not about Iraq specifically. Nimrud and Nineveh are biblical sites, they’re historic—and we’re talking about thousands and thousands of years of human existence (see ISIS Bulldozes 3,000-Year-Old Major Assyrian Site in Nimrud, Iraq and ISIS Destroying Iraq’s Cultural Heritage One Site at a Time).

I feel like anything I’d say will be redundant and bland. It’s extremely difficult to even see these images, it’s the equivalent for me of watching people being massacred or gassed. I can’t watch them (see ISIS Militants Storm Museum and Smash 3,000 Year Old Assyrian Sculptures on Video). I think there’s an added level of despair when it comes to these things that have a collective universal heritage aspect to it. It’s just another dimension.

You co-founded the Ruya Foundation with philanthropist Reem Shather-Kubba, who was deeply involved with bringing Iraq back to the Venice Biennale after a 30-year hiatus, and with financial manager Shwan Ibrahim Taha. How did the foundation come about?
In a way, the foundation reflects the Iraqi diaspora in the West. The foundation came about when Shwan got involved peripherally in the 2011 Iraqi Pavilion in Venice with Reem, who’s on the board in a fundraising capacity.

We were talking about how it would be really good to launch an effort on an international level that would support Iraqi art and culture. We realized it was more credible, and also made more sense, to have something that is based and registered in Iraq, and not just something we do from New York, London, or Paris.

The Venice Biennale is our biggest project, around which we are able to fundraise and attract attention, but we’re doing a lot of other work in Iraq, and we promote all culture.

What are some of the challenges the foundation is able to address directly or even provide solutions to?
One of the things that’s been very challenging is the creation of a data base—of artists, musicians, actors, poets and so on. The data base came about from the fact that there’s absolutely no information about what’s going on in Iraq, culturally speaking, available to the outside world. The news has been completely hijacked by violence and politics, there’s very little known about what’s going on inside Iraq.

It’s a country in isolation. When we came to do the 2013 Venice Biennale project, I wanted to involve internationally recognized curators and we invited a series of curators to submit proposals, but it became very apparent that nobody knew [artists living in Iraq]. I wanted this data base to be about representing artists from inside Iraq, to reflect on the reality from inside the country.

And the reality is that people have no idea, what goes on inside. The conversation about Iraq was simply about Iraqi artists in the diaspora. When we talk about Iraqi art today, people still talk about the big names from the 60s and 70s, and nothing contemporary.

And the data base can help to change that?
The brief for curators [for submissions for the 2015 Iraqi Pavilion in Venice] was to include people from inside the country. I thought that would be more honest and also more challenging, after all you’re dealing with the National Pavilion, as problematic as that definition may be.

From that, came the realization that people had no idea what was going on. The art world inside Iraq is isolated and parochial. There is no market and no connections with the outside. No common language, in fact. People are not necessarily contemporary [in their practice]. Initially, that was very daunting but I thought about it as a liberation. Because anything goes, it’s a positive thing!

The data base began as an open to all, and includes all art forms. This in itself was also novel because Iraq still functions very much like in the former Soviet bloc; there are these artists unions that go by medium, the landscape is very classically defined.

They don’t know the international art conversation today. They have little access to travel—good luck getting anywhere with an Iraqi passport!–and it’s been like this since the 70s, and continued in the post-2003 drama. It’s like atrophy. You can’t just rehabilitate it overnight.

What were the responses to the data base? Has it proven useful?
One crucial aspect of doing this is to archive, which is an important part of what we do in the context of the cultural destruction. Whether it’s through our publications or through the exhibitions, we’re supporting it as part of a larger conscious effort to support the basic struggle to just exist. At this stage it’s about existing. It’s such a different reality to what we know in the art market and the challenges artists feel today.

People are also very suspicious of us. They don’t understand why we do what we do. The minute they see you’re doing something, they start treating you like you’re the State, like you have infinite amounts of money and can do this and that. It’s challenging.

How do you stay focused on the foundation’s goals amid these doubts?
We had a difficult moment when ISIS took over Mosul last year, because we had just appointed the curator for the pavilion (see Philippe Van Cauteren Will Curate Iraqi Pavilion at 2015 Venice Biennale) and we had doubts whether we could go ahead with the biennale at all. But we turned it around and thought, we have to go through! Because this is exactly what this is about—existing is in fact an act of resistance. Which is frustrating because you want to do more than just exist. We’re obviously doing more than just that, but the fact is, you have to continue in the face of critics telling you that people are being killed, so why are you talking about culture now. But it’s just as important. This is about people.

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