Here, in his own words, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal discusses his traveling installation helping to revive the College of Fine Arts library in Baghdad. It is currently on view at House of Wisdom in Sharjah until March 21.
As I was coming of age in Iraq, books became a way of escaping a harsh reality. It was a form of entertainment and escapism, but also a way of saying: “I matter, I have the knowledge, I am someone.”
Love Wafaa Bilal’s “168:01” (2006–present) since it was announced as a kickstarter. He is helping rebuild the 70,000 volume library of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad, which was destroyed during the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003. pic.twitter.com/dHvfK8IKsb— Hrag (@hragv) November 24, 2019
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to many libraries losing most of their belongings. The College of Fine Arts library lost more than 70,000 books. When I was asked to do a show in Canada, specifically about libraries, I wondered: How can an artwork propel a society into the future? It could inspire people and break the isolation. I decided the show should be participatory; rewarding, not alienating, others and that it had to have tangible results.
There’s an anecdote that the Mongolian invasion of Baghdad in the 13th century destroyed the largest library in the world at that time. The Mongols dumped all the books of Baghdad into the Tigris River. So, the title of this project is ‘168:01’ — 168 hours — referring to the books that stayed in the river for seven days and bled ink. I imagined them becoming just white, with no knowledge within.
You start with these books — as if they were just plucked out of the river. We usually see destruction as a chaotic thing, but imagine that destruction having an organized aesthetic. It raises awareness of how important colors — or knowledge — in books are. I wanted to present the viewer with something they encounter every day, but at the same time, they don’t. This systematic aesthetic of whiteness: The blank pages, the disappearance of knowledge.
As a reminder of donating a book, you can take one of these white books and put it in your library. (Viewers can donate to fund the purchase of books from a wishlist drawn up by faculty members. Those books then replace the blank ones in the installation over time.) Remarkably, people have responded to this call for action. It’s very nice to see so many people from different walks of life rebuilding a place that’s been ripped open by violence.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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