UAE: Iraqi artist's ode to reflection of cultural loss

Sharjah - Wafaa Bilal stages ‘168: 01’ for the first time in the Middle East at Sharjah’s new cultural edifice; calls House of Wisdom “an ideal setting for the installation.”


By CT Report

Published: Tue 23 Mar 2021, 8:41 AM

Last updated: Tue 23 Mar 2021, 8:57 AM

The minimalist architectural geometry of the newly opened House of Wisdom in Sharjah that boasts a sophisticated simplicity with clean, simple lines and the thoughtful use of light and space, is the perfect backdrop for Iraqi-born, New York-based artist and academic, Wafaa Bilal’s major solo exhibition titled ‘168: 01’, currently being staged for the first time in the Middle East.

Envisioned as a central hub for obtaining knowledge in various forms, the 12,000-square-metre predominantly glass structure of the House of Wisdom is a space for shared learning and innovative research. Inspired by modern Islamic design, Sharjah’s latest cultural edifice and architectural icon has been aptly reimagined as a library of the 21st century where, along with a repository of 265,000 books comprising both digital and physical formats — exhibition areas, indoor and outdoor reading lounges, and separate pod rooms — all come together to offer spaces for independent and collaborative thinking. Here, natural light streams in through moveable bamboo screens and its airy, physical spaces have transformed the library into both a social sphere and an educational space for its users. It is in this serene and welcoming social hub that eminent artist Wafaa Bilal, also an Arts Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, chose to stage his thought-provoking installation where visitors become active participants in the realities of a distant conflict zone.

Aimed at fostering cross-cultural connections and spurring the act of rebuilding, the two ongoing exhibitions (the second is ‘The Ashes Series’) by the artist at the House of Wisdom explore the dissonance of war and culture.

‘168: 01’ is an installation of an austere white library representing the staggering cultural losses endured throughout Iraq’s history — most recently in 2003 where more than 70,000 books at the library of the College of Fine Arts at University of Baghdad were burned and destroyed. The title ‘168: 01’ references the heinous act of setting fire to the libraries of Baghdad by invading forces in the 13th century when, books from ‘Bait al-Hikma’ or the House of Wisdom were thrown into the River Tigris, where it is believed, their pages bled ink for seven days — 168 hours. The first minute after this loss becomes, in the artist’s eyes, the starting point of recovery and signals a potential rebirth.

The installation comprises a series of white shelves filled with blank books, and visitors are invited to replace a blank book with one from the wish list of the Iraqi students to fulfil the aim of restoring the lost archives of the university library. When the exhibition concludes, it is expected that books saturated with knowledge will line the shelves, marking the commencement of the process of rebuilding for several libraries across Iraq.

In Bilal’s second exhibit, ‘The Ashes Series’ — a collection of detailed miniature reconstructions of original press photographs, the artist re-sensitises the viewer to make sense of the destruction of war through images that depict the aftermath of atrocity. The suffering endured is further intensified with the absence of human life in formerly occupied homes.

Wafaa Bilal discusses the significance of cultural loss as exemplified through his two prominent works, and emphasises why the world needs more cultural hubs like the House of Wisdom to connect people and communities with issues impacting humanity globally.

Following its debut in Canada in January 2016, ‘168:01’ is being shown in the Arab world for the first time in Sharjah. How does the newly opened House of Wisdom become a fitting backdrop for it?

For a while, I have been in conversation with Maraya Art Centre, a non-profit creative organisation in Sharjah, about the installation to take forward our plans to use the architecture at the House of Wisdom as a backdrop for this project. Site specification requires considering how the work is going to function on site, how attendees will interact with it, how they will move around the sculpture, and the installation’s relationship to the setting, space, and environment. I was attentive to a structure that could invoke an emotional and physical response from attendees.

‘168:01’ is a site-specific installation. For its Sharjah iteration, what inspired you to contextualise your work in its current form in a setting that is neither a museum nor an art gallery?

The House of Wisdom in Sharjah is a library and an educational space, making it an ideal setting for the installation. There is a striking difference between the books in the installation and the House of Wisdom’s repository, which is currently stocked with over 265,000 books. There is a stark contrast between the shelves lined with books at the House of Wisdom and the white austere books and shelves of ‘168:01’. The installation and its arrangement of books are displayed in a very systematic way and it creates a compelling juxtaposition between the library’s books that are full of knowledge and the blank pages of the books in the installation. In previous iterations, the purpose remained the same but in the setting of a gallery or museum, the way the work is read and understood in these various contexts differ.

Why is audience interaction central to this work and what has been its impact?

There is an urgency to create opportunities for cross-cultural connection and rebuilding. I want to aid in breaking the isolation of the intellectual and artistic community in Baghdad by connecting them to larger communities around the world. It is vital to let Iraqis know that after the dust of war settles down, the world will not forget about them. I hope to create a humanising and emotional connection that generates empathy and encourages the concerted effort of a global community to work together. With participatory art, artists can foster an environment that is rewarding for contributors, collaborators, donors, beneficiaries, and the platform. The process of rebuilding is a poetic and humane act.

What is striking about ‘The Ashes Series’ is that amid the rubble and debris of once-populated places, the human presence is indicated by the scattering of 21 grams of ashes. What emotional response and connection did you intend to elicit from viewers with this?

The 21 grams of ashes represent the supposed amount of weight the body loses as the spirit leaves its host at the time of death. The ashes remind us of the loss of human life and that once the dust has settled, we need to move forward.

These two projects are connected in a beautiful way when we see the library in ‘168:01’ arising from the ashes. We slowly witness the shelves liven with colours as the blank pages are removed and replaced with books. Similarly, ‘The Ashes Series’ intends to slow the viewer down to reflect on cultural loss.

Why was it essential for you to portray the sense of loss in the aftermath of a war without dwelling on human suffering, as press images often do?

‘The Ashes Series’ started in 2003 when I first saw the images of destruction from a conflict zone in Iraq, while I was in a comfortable place in USA, and I reflected on the fact that as time passes, these images fade from memory and we become de-sensitised over time. I then began to examine strategies to help slow the viewer down so they can look at these images of destruction and loss without being overwhelmed. Thus, I started to create aestheticised images that were beautiful but had a component that was skewed or distorted to unease the viewer.

This was a meditative process that afforded me the opportunity to feel closer to home. I used the images as a medium to connect the polarity between the comfort and conflict zones. Moreover, I was concerned with the principles of aesthetic pleasure versus aesthetic pain. Here, you give the viewer something to look at and the process of viewing unveils the intent of the image. By removing the human from the image, I am shifting their aesthetic experience and allowing the didactic to reveal the conceptual underpinnings of the work.

What, according to you, makes cultural heritage so vulnerable to attack and why should we work towards protecting and rebuilding this heritage?

Heritage is not just about artefacts or objects; it is about our identities, our way of life; it is what sets us apart. Moreover, it is the story of our ancestors, the remnants of our ancestral past, and it is what makes us robust and unique as a culture.

The first target of war is always a nation’s heritage and it is not arbitrary. When one destroys the symbols of heritage, they can rewrite its history and replace it. This process is a form of cultural erasure. It is important for us to recognise this erasure and reclaim, protect, and archive our heritage to regenerate it, so that it can continue to exist. By allowing our heritage to live, we allow our existence to continue.

Your work, ‘168:01’, is a stark reminder that access to knowledge is not equal across the world. In that respect, as an inclusive, open space that welcomes all, what according to you is the relevance of Sharjah’s House of Wisdom in modern society?

We must examine the House of Wisdom from a different lens than simply an educational one. The House of Wisdom is a cultural hub and connects people in a different way than traditional libraries that aim to bridge historical and contemporary knowledge production with visitors.

Today, there is an ever-greater urgency to create a public space that connects us to the people around us and communities internationally, in a profound manner. Cultural hubs provide space for contemplation, social connection, and discursive environment to reflect on the many social issues that impact our lives, in addition to also being a place one frequents to acquire knowledge.


The House of Wisdom (HoW) is Sharjah’s new cultural edifice and iconic architectural marvel, built to commemorate the emirate’s yearlong tenure as UNESCO World Book Capital 2019.

Situated near the University City of Sharjah, the newly opened HoW is a reimagining of libraries for the 21st century. Inspired by modern architecture, the HoW is set on an elevated platform spanning 12,000 square metres and comprises 15 lobbies and halls spread across two storeys offering an immersive space for learning, sharing, creating, and accessing knowledge.

Developed by the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), HoW offer access to a new way of knowledge exploration with books in varied languages and formats, vast digital resources, a fabrication lab with 3D printers to build prototypes of experimental projects and cutting-edge technology to print and bind books within minutes.

The library is home to thousands of books in the digital as well as physical formats. The children’s library ‘The Little Reader’ houses more than 2,000 books, while another has been set aside for youth with 3,000 titles.

House of Wisdom includes a host of collaborative community spaces, including lecture halls, reading lounges, exhibition spaces, a children’s educational area, a central courtyard, and outdoor gardens.

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