Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Looking Within and Without: An Experimental Artist

The back of Wafaa Bilal’s head, for The 3rd I.
The tiny digital camera has been removed from the back of Wafaa Bilal’s skull.

Let’s allow that image sink in for a moment.

OK. The 44-year-old Iraqi, an assistant professor of art at New York University, is a creative provocateur. For an entire month in 2007, for example, visitors to his website were able to splatter him with a remote-controlled paint gun and watch as he tried to dodge the yellow-colored attacks while sequestered in a small room at a Chicago gallery. The piece was titled Domestic Tension. In the anti-Arab fervor still sweeping the country after 9/11, many strangers gleefully wielded this symbolic Internet weapon of personal destruction.

But Bilal’s latest project, called The 3rd I, surely ranks even higher on any pushing-the-cultural-envelope meter. At the end of 2010, he had a waterproof titanium plate inserted in his head. That made it possible to magnetically attach a camera that could transmit photos minute-by-minute to the notebook computer he carried at all times, a process the world could observe online. (On campus, he agreed to protect the privacy of students and faculty with a lens cap.) But, recently, his body began rejecting part of the apparatus, which caused constant suffering despite the steroids and antibiotics he took in hopes of solving the problem.

Bilal has said that the purpose of this exhibit, commissioned by a new museum in Qatar, is to explore “the inability to capture memory and experience.” His memories and experiences are not necessarily easy to address. He’s one of seven children born in Kufa to an abusive, womanizing, gambling-addicted communist father who taught school, and a devout, uneducated Shiite mother. Both were self-styled mystics. Their unhappy marriage had been arranged. The family was decidedly dysfunctional – and persecuted by Saddam Hussein. “Our life was a struggle,” Bilal explained during an early 2010 phone interview. But, on the plus side, “as kids we learned it’s OK to be different.”

Bilal remotely splattered with paint, “Domestic Tension,” 2007
Since childhood, Bilal had been obsessed with making art, his escape from the harsh reality at home and throughout the nation. “I began to rebel at the age of 18,” he pointed out. “My work took a political direction.” After a cousin was accused of belonging to an opposition party and executed by the Ba’athist-controlled government, Bilal – a self-described “young bohemian” – was not permitted to pursue a coveted art major at the University of Baghdad. Instead, he was relegated to geography. Nevertheless, “I had to succeed,” he recalled. “The alternative was going into the military. During the war with Iran (which ended in 1988), that was like a death sentence.”

As he endured this punishment in a sort of academic gulag, his clandestine topical efforts often were confiscated and he was interrogated several times. “The first thing that got me in trouble was paintings based on photographs I took in poor neighborhoods,” Bilal said. “So I turned to abstracts.” When a dictatorship can’t be confronted directly, artists tend to come up with seemingly innocuous ways to express their views.

In August 1990, a difficult situation grew far worse. “When Saddam invaded Kuwait, at that moment I knew my life was at risk,” Bilal noted. “Government people came to our classes to find volunteers to fight. I was one of those who stood and said no.”

Forced to leave college, he lived an underground existence, scrounging for food and frequently moving from place to place. When even that became too dangerous, “I was on the run, just a few steps ahead of the regime,” Bilal recounted, adding that to crush the short-lived popular uprising that followed the Gulf War, “Saddam systematically bombed city after city.”

Bilal first fled to Kuwait, where many mistakenly believed the Americans were protecting Iraqi dissidents. Under suspicion of being a spy, he was arrested for two days, and then spent more than a month on the border with Bedouins before landing in Saudi Arabia. He was trapped for almost two years at a Saudi Arabian refugee camp in the desert, where abductions and murders were common until the United Nations stepped in to maintain order.

Amid all the chaos, the lack of electricity or running water, and the unbearable heat (“120° F in the shade!”), Bilal built himself a crude adobe studio and managed to overcome the lack of conventional materials. He fashioned canvases from pieces of a tent, pigments from coffee and brushes from his own hair. “I also had a goal to use this time to improve myself,” he said. ”Others were losing their minds or committing suicide.”

Bilal immigrated to the United States in 1992, earning undergrad and graduate degrees in New Mexico and Illinois. He spoke out against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. (“I knew this was going to be a bad adventure, that the consequences would be terrible for both cultures.”) The following year, when his 28-year-old brother Haji was killed at a checkpoint outside Kufa by shrapnel from an American air-to-ground missile, their heartbroken father, a man prone to nervous breakdowns, died within three months. This history is documented in Wafaa Bilal’s 2008 memoir, Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, published by City Lights.

Bilal’s photographs, interactive installations and performance art channel his anguish through the overarching issues of intolerance and violence. “I don’t have the privilege to meditate on aesthetics,” he said. “I need to meditate on the pain to make sense of it. When injustice and aggression end, I’ll paint flowers.”

Meanwhile, Bilal apparently has tied the camera around his neck in order to continue The 3rd I. It still chronicles everything behind him as he waits for the hole in his head – and soul – to heal.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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