The Belgian artist Francis Alÿs will create a new work for the Iraqi pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale next year (13 May-26 November 2017) based on his recent experiences spent on the frontline in Mosul, northern Iraq, as part of the ongoing military offensive against Islamic state (Isil) militants. The piece was commissioned by the Ruya Foundation, a Baghdad-based non-governmental body that also oversaw the Iraqi pavilion in 2013 and 2015.
Alÿs spent time with a Kurdish battalion in Mosul and visited refugee projects in northern Iraq earlier this year as part of the biennale project. “The main line of enquiry for his new work will be the role of the artist in war, whilst he will also examine themes of nomadism,” says a spokeswoman for the Ruya Foundation. Alÿs similarly served as an embedded war artist with the UK’s Task Force Helmand in Afghanistan in 2013.
The Iraqi pavilion exhibition, called Archaic, will also feature ancient artefacts from the region alongside works by six contemporary practitioners and two late Modern masters. The co-curators of the project are Tamara Chalabi, the co-founder of Ruya, and Paolo Colombo, who organised the Istanbul Biennial in 1999. They will explore “the notion of the ‘archaic’, which has a dual meaning whereby it can simultaneously refer to an ancient cultural heritage and a fragile contemporary political entity”, according to a project statement.
Artists participating in the Iraqi Pavilion live both in Iraq—including Luay Fadhil, Ali Arkady and Sakar Sleman—and abroad. The latter include Sadik Kwaish Alfraji and Nadine Hattom, both born in Baghdad, who reside in the Netherlands and Germany respectively. Most of the artists have been commissioned to create new works.
The show will also feature works by the late, influential Ankara-born artist Jawad Salim, known for his Monument for Freedom erected in Baghdad in 1958; and Shakir Hassan Al Said, who was influenced by Islamic Sufism and the 20th-century Western theory of existentialism.