LONDON—An exhibition of Iraqi contemporary art here is part of a visual research project that hopes to change how Mesopotamian heritage is documented.
Hanaa Malallah, an Iraqi artist and academic who lives in London, is running the project, called “Co-Existent Ruins: Exploring Iraq’s Mesopotamian Past Through Contemporary Art”. Five fellow Iraqi artists at four ancient Mesopotamian sites are collaborating in the project.
The project tries to show the sites—Ur, Babylon, Nippur and Nimrud—in a new light.
According to Rashid International, a network of archaeological and cultural heritage experts protecting sites across Iraq, the government used to employ guards to protect heritage sites, but stopped after the 2003 invasion by a U.S.-led coalition. The protection was only partially restored in subsequent years, and most sites have become derelict.
“We find that using technology such as a drone as our art material enables us to find another perspective on our history. Rather than physically excavate a site, the artists are using creative tools to ‘virtually’ excavate them.”Hanaa Malallah
An Iraqi-Brish artist who coordinated the project
The participating artists were either born or currently live near the ancient sites. The aim was to see whether the bond between the artists and the objects they depicted could bring about a new visual understanding of their Mesopotamian heritage.
Drones Meet Ziggurats
The idea for the exhibition began decades ago but Malallah only began to lay down its roots when she worked on a project in 2016 and 2017 called “Drone Hits the Great Ziggurat of Ur”.
Malallah said: “We find that using technology such as a drone as our art material enables us to find another perspective on our history. Rather than physically excavate a site, the artists are using creative tools to ‘virtually’ excavate them.”
Two years later, the Iraqi artist Reya Abd Al-Redah also used a drone to film herself performing a prayer at the Great Ziggurat of Ur.
Gallery: Images from ‘Co-Existent Ruins’
Betoul Mahdey, a British-Iraqi photographer, collaborated with Malallah for the “Co-Existent Ruins” exhibition by taking pictures of the numerical inscriptions on artefacts at the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, rather than the objects themselves.
She then went onto the streets of Baghdad and photographed local residents with numbers on their foreheads, linking each person with an artefact with the same museum number.
The idea was to highlight the loss of identity Iraqis feel when ancient artefacts have gone missing.
Mahdey herself had felt a sense of loss after many objects were looted from the National Museum in 2003 as U.S. forces advanced on Baghdad. International media covered stories of widespread looting of museums and archeological sites, which spread fear among the people that their heritage was being lost.
“It is hoped that SOAS will provide the opportunity for it to continue and develop its work beyond its current scope leading to future exhibitions elsewhere,”John Hollingworth
Head of galleries and exhibitions at SOAS
Iraq is still suffering political, social and economic problems. Bombings still occur around the country and many people are living on the edge of poverty. But Malallah believes that “Iraqis, whether inside or outside of Iraq, believe in the concept ‘to be’—not just ‘to be in the present’ but their Mesopotamian heritage can give them hope for a good future.”
Project Benefits Researchers at SOAS
“Co-Existent Ruins” will be on display at the Brunei Gallery of SOAS University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies) until March 19.
John Hollingworth, head of galleries and exhibitions at SOAS, said there has been “a very positive response to the exhibition from members of the Iraqi community in the United Kingdom.”
The exhibition was meant to open in 2020 but had to be postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hollingworth said he was keen to “help and support this project as part of our remit to present exhibitions that reflect the many diverse subjects and regions studied here.” Academics and students from disciplines across SOAS will use the project, he said.
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“It is hoped that SOAS will provide the opportunity for it to continue and develop its work beyond its current scope leading to future exhibitions elsewhere,” Hollingworth said.
Mesopotamia is rich in history and culture, Malallah said. It is where Iraq’s heritage and people come from. “Co-Existent Ruins” shows that with today’s technologies, contemporary art can present a new way of preserving that heritage for generations to come.