Work by six Iraqi artists at the height of their careers went under the hammer at Emirates Towers on Wednesday night as part of Christie’s first Dubai auction since the summer. Yet these six pieces were entirely not-for-profit: every dirham raised is going directly to a new initiative intended to provide Iraq with some of the critical art infrastructure it lacks.
The funds are going to Echo, a project founded by Rijin Sahakian, which begins an eight-month series of virtual workshops in Baghdad on November 3. Iraq’s foremost artists working abroad, whether in America, Australia or Amsterdam, will, twice a month for the eight-month period, guide, challenge and lecture in Arabic to a group of 10 students and transmit to them the ideas that the contemporary art world is currently chewing over.
Security remains a big concern in Iraq, so Echo has made use of Skype and a couple of iPads to beam the workshops straight into the Iraqi Independent Film Centre in the centre of Baghdad. Cameras will enable the lecturers to see their students, and a big screen will allow the students to see them as well.
It may be a virtual classroom but it is one that is fundamentally interactive, allowing the students to work with their teacher, ask questions and display their own work for critique.
Over the next two months, excerpts from these lectures will become available online, steadily creating a valuable, publicly accessible archive of contemporary Iraqi art.
“Isolation is the biggest problem faced by students,” says Sahakian, the night before the Christie’s auction. “It’s difficult to leave the country, it’s difficult for people to come in and so there’s just no circulation of ideas, information and works happening.”
Among the lecturers taking part in the programme is Wafaa Bilal, who also donated work to the auction. Bilal had to leave Iraq in his early 20s after his political pieces drew the ire of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since then, he has carved out a distinctly experimental niche, famously having a camera implanted into the back of his head last year to take minute-by-minute snapshots of his day.
For the auction, Bilal contributed a photograph from ...And Counting, a performance piece in New York from 2010 in which the artist had his back tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq, with a red dot for every American casualty and a UV-ink dot for every Iraqi casualty in the recent war.
However one might judge Bilal’s visceral style, his readiness to break through conventional understandings of what constitutes art is an approach that the Echo workshops will disseminate to a younger, emerging generation of Iraqi artists.
Isabelle de la Bruyère, the director of Christie’s Middle East, says that all of the six artists who donated to the Echo section of the sale are taking social matters into their own hands. It’s the second time that Christie’s has supported such a programme, with donations by Saudi artists from the Edge of Arabia collective raising Dh3.7 million in its May sale for the group’s education initiatives in the kingdom.
“For the Edge of Arabia sale, each of those artists donated a piece because they said that they grew up without an arts-education programme, and they didn’t want the next generation to do the same. Similarly, these six Iraqi artists are raising money to raise awareness,” says de la Bruyère. “We think it’s important to support such causes, because it’s about the creators themselves, and there’s no greater source than that.”
Sahakian describes the initiative as a “de facto arts council” for Iraq that, in addition to running these workshops over the next eight months, will become a platform through which rising figures in the Iraqi art world – both at home and in the diaspora – can begin to exhibit internationally next year.
Building this kind of infrastructure demands a solid head for perseverance. Investment in the arts, she says, remains markedly scarce in the reconstruction of Iraq after the war. “We’re at a point where there’s a lot of urgent work that could be done, but at the same time an absolute lack of resources for artists to do this work. How do you find a way to build support for these artists?”