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Ancient Iraqi Art On Display In Italy At Venice Biennale


Iraq has a deep artistic heritage that stems back to ancient Mesopotamia and beyond. That heritage has sadly gotten more attention recently because Islamist militants are destroying it. Now a collection of ancient Iraqi art that's been saved is on view alongside contemporary work from that country at the world's largest and most prestigious contemporary art fair. Christopher Livesay explains.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: In 2014, Islamic State militants invaded the city of Mosul, ransacking its history museum and pulverising statues of winged bulls, bearded dieties and whatever else they deemed idolatrous. They posted the destruction online in a propaganda video.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

TAMARA CHALABI: I can't even look at those images because they seem like they're real beheadings. I mean, it's horrific.

LIVESAY: Tamara Chalabi is the co-curator of the Iraq pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. Her show is called "Archaic."

CHALABI: This lady who is from the Tell Halaf period, which is in the Neolithic period going back to 6,000 years before Christ - it's actually 8,000 years old.

LIVESAY: Alongside fertility goddesses and votive figures are contemporary video installations, paintings and photography by working Iraqi artists.

CHALABI: It's a conversation between the very ancient past and the very recent present, the now. The erasure of the past, which is something that has happened repeatedly in Iraq for the last 40, 50 years, has really affected the way people perceive of themselves today and what they can hold on to, what they can refer back to to know who they are. It's very confusing.

LIVESAY: Those complexities are reflected in Chalabi's own personal history. Her late father, Ahmad Chalabi, was part of a group of influential Iraqi expatriates who advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. That group provided information it said could prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Those were never found. Tamara Chalabi defends her father.

CHALABI: To use one man as a scapegoat for the entire, you know, superpower of the world to go to Iraq - I mean, it's a canard that's been hashed and rehashed since 2003. You know, it's like the linear narrative of, you know, one man that took a whole nation to war, which I think is just ridiculous.

LIVESAY: It's a complicated personal narrative for an Iraqi woman who went to boarding school in Oxford and completed her history Ph.D. at Harvard, says Irena Popiashvili.

IRENA POPIASHVILI: I mean, honestly, I would not be suspicious of her. I think on the contrary - right now, she is doing the job for the country.

LIVESAY: Popiashvili is an art historian who curated the Georgian pavilion at the Bienalle in 1999. She recognizes there's another twist - that the Iraqi national pavilion in Venice has been organized by Chalabi's private foundation. But she says the show is ultimately a good thing for Iraqi artists and their culture.

POPIASHVILI: You know, when you hear Iraq today, you think of war, and you think of the bombings. You don't expect to see Iraqi pavilion in Venice when, you know, many countries cannot afford and don't have pavilions. And it's great that they did it, and it's good for the artists.

LIVESAY: Artists like Iraqi-Australian Nadine Hattom. She's a member of an ancient and vanishing ethnoreligious minority called the Mandaeans. Her work includes collage, small objects made of clay and old family photos from Iraq in which she's photoshopped away all of the people.

NADINE HATTOM: In order to comment on the fact that the Mandaean people are disappearing from this landscape. And the approach that I took was one that doesn't define a place by its recent history. Rather, it's defined by the multitude of stories that always and will continue to happen there. It's very emotional for me.

LIVESAY: In text below the photographs, the missing people talk about the lives they led, how they met and fell in love. Those kinds of personal stories are essential to connecting with the work, says Linda Komaroff. She's a curator of Islamic art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who says American audiences tend to think of ancient civilizations as dead civilizations.

LINDA KOMAROFF: There's a shared humanity. There's shared appreciation for art and beauty. And of crucial importance is a reminder that these contemporary works of art are produced by people. And these people are more than collateral damage or blurred images on a nightly news report. They're human like us.

LIVESAY: But Tamara Chalabi says she also wants her country's pavilion in Venice to help Iraqis make sense of their own stories.

CHALABI: In a way, this exhibition is also kind of trying to push that barrier that people have with such an intense heritage. In this version of the heritage, there's a healing element to it.

LIVESAY: Not just for her, she adds, but for the artists and their audiences. Putting ancient works next to contemporary art is a way to process the past as Iraq forges on to an uncertain future. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Venice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Livesay