Today I’m going to tell you a story of rebirth, rebuilding, empowerment. From the big picture perspective, this is a story of cycles of emergence, and all else is created from the human response to these cycles.
Most of this story takes place of Baghdad, but it also happens right here, right now. It happens everywhere there are people who believe we have the power to write the story of the future. A story of our choosing.
Emergence of Knowledge: Baghdad, Bayt Al Hikma, and the Islamic Golden Age
This story starts in Baghdad of the Middle Ages. Baghdad lies on the shores of Tigris river, making it a bustling city of trade and travel. It was called THE ROUND CITY because of its circular design, which scholars believe was inspired by Persian architecture. There were grand mosques, gardens that made visitors feel like they were visiting paradise, and massive souks bustling with trade from around the world.
One of the jewels of Baghdad was Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, an intellectual center for learning, research, and innovation. Scholars and students from far and wide came to study the largest selection of books in the world on mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, and the humanities. Among these books were translations of classic texts from Greece, Persia, and India. It was a cosmopolitan city that developed into a learning center for the world.
In 1258 AD, the Mongolian army invaded Baghdad; they completely eviscerated the city, its inhabitants, its infrastructure, and its beautiful libraries, including Bayt al-Hikma.
There is an oral history that says that the Mongol army threw the library into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books, enabling them to cross the river. The pages bled ink into the river for seven days, or 168 hours.. turning white as they were drained of knowledge under the rushing waters of the great river and the boots the Mongolian army.
Emergence of Form: At the Heart of Arab Modernism
When many people think of Iraq, Modern Art is one of the last things they would associate with this ancient land. In reality, art in its many forms has always been a large part of Iraqi culture. In the 20th century, Iraq began its love affair with Modern Art, and it embraced it as a new source of creative output. Throughout the century, Baghdadi artists were influential across the Arab world in the development of Modern Arab Art.
In the early 20th century, Baghdad began it’s foray into modernism. European artists and colonial settlers came to the city, introducing Iraqi artists to Orientalist techniques and themes. Iraqi artists worked on picturesque landscapes, native people, market scenes, and odalisques. Some artists were already experienced in western art practices like drawing, painting, and perspective from their work with Arab soldiers trained in Istanbul. When Arab soldiers traveled to Istanbul for military training with the Ottomans, they also learned Western art practices. When they returned to Baghdad, many taught classes and shared what they learned with local artists. Top Iraqi artists were encouraged to continue their training and studies in Europe. (Source: Nada Shabout, Modern Arab Art)
As Iraqi artists developed their technique and skill, they wanted to create a distinctly Arab aesthetics rooted in their own style and content, and from these efforts, Arab Modernism was born. Subject matter shifted away from Orientalist themes and to more authentic local scenes, Islamic inspired subjects like illuminated manuscripts and miniatures, and the transformation of folk stories and legends into paintings. Surrealism, Cubism, and Abstraction were all embraced across the Arab world. (Source: Nada Shabout, Modern Arab Art)
Through the years, Baghdad saw the rise of many art groups that heavily influenced Modern Arab Art like The Pioneers Group, the Baghdad Group of Modern Art, and the New Vision Group. The developments in Baghdad’s modern art movements and activities influenced modern Arab art across the region as well as middle eastern culture. These groups developed styles and subject matters, wrote manifestos, hosted exhibitions, and interacted with other Arab and Western artists. Through the many challenges of the 20th century, the arts remained vibrant and influential across the Arab world. (Source: Charles Pocock, The Reason for the Project, Contemporary Practices)
These artists were inspired, they were political, they were rebellious, and they wanted to do their part to shape a new political and artistic consciousness outside of colonialism and Orientalism. Much like earlier Iraqi innovators who were at the heart of the Islamic Golden Age that laid the foundation for development that spanned across centuries, Iraq’s modern artists laid the foundation for Contemporary Arab Art.
Emergence of A New Story: Out of Destruction, Partners In Creation Are Born
A similar story to the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols played out after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many of us remember the looting of The Iraq Museum in the immediate aftermath of the invasion when thousands of historically significant and meaningful artifacts were taken from the museum, many never to be seen again.
At the time, The College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad, was one of the best educational art institutions in the Middle East; a place where, like the Bayt al-Hikma, students came from far and wide to learn and discover their own potential. The library for the College of Fine arts held more than 70,000 books.
In 2004, the College of Fine Art library was also looted and many books were sold on the black market. It’s now 2016 and the library has not been rebuilt. Because of the loss, students are cut off from both knowledge and the global art community. The good news is this: this isn’t the 13th century. We, as a 21st century, global community are not bound by destruction as the citizen were in the time of the Mongol invasion. We have the means to rebuild, and we have an opportunity to come together as partners in creation.
Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal has created 168:01, a project that consists of a gallery exhibition and the rebuilding of the physical library through the collaborative efforts of empowered citizens and organizations.
The title is a nod to both destruction and rebirth. 168 is the number of hours it took the books from the Bayt al-Hikma to drain of knowledge into the Tigris. The :01 signals the beginning, rebirth and a process of moving forward to rebuild. 168.01 is the emergence of a new beginning written by those who choose to participate, to become partners in creation.
The exhibition consists of six bookshelves, 40-foot long, six-foot-high. The shelves are filled with blank, white books. These books act as placeholders, symbols of the void left behind by cultural destruction. The donated books are symbols of hope and the interconnectedness we all share.
Each viewer has the choice to become a participant and make their own contribution to the library. Wafaa is working with the University of Baghdad faculty to create a list of books that will support the training and education of the next generation of Iraq’s artists. This list is now an Amazon Wishlist where anyone who wishes to support the project can order a book to donate to the library.
For the duration of the exhibition, donated books will replace the blank books on the book shelves. At the end of the exhibition, the books will be shipped to Baghdad.
It’s not only gallery visitors who can donate to rebuilding the library and creating a new future, you can too. Wafaa ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to purchase books and cover the costs of shipping them to Baghdad. The Kickstarter campaign is over, but we are still collecting donations.
1000 books are just the beginning.
We are still looking for people to help us fill the new library with 70,000 books and to send those books to Baghdad. We want to put an end to the isolation of the students and faculty in Baghdad and let them know there are people connected to them around the world. That’s our goal. It’s a big goal, but we believe it can happen because it’s not just one, two, ten, or even 100 people. It’s now thousands of people who want to write a new story about what happens after the act of destruction. We are coming together from across the globe…much like the knowledge seekers who traveled to Bayt al-Hikm, we can convene in Baghdad to see what is possible.
There’s a saying that History is Written by The Victors. Now, that may be true, they may write the history, but you have the power to create the future.
Life is not happening around you, it is evolving through you. By becoming part of the story of 168:01, you become the driving force, you fill the void of destruction, you co-create the world as you want it to be, you create the future.
How You Can Become a Partner In Creation
- Purchase and ship a book directly from our Amazon Wishlist
- Donate from your personal library
- Suggest additional titles for our Wishlist
- Purchase a leftover Kickstarter reward or donate directly through Paypal
- Connect us with organizations who can help ship the books to Baghdad
- Keep spreading the word!
If you feel called to join any of our global rebuilding efforts, please head over to our 168.01 Support Page.
From May 28 – August 28, 2016 (Opening reception: Friday, May 27, 6-10pm) you can view 168.01 at the Esker Foundation in Calgary, AB, Canada.
168.01 is curated by Srimoyee Mitra, organized and circulated by the Art Gallery of Windsor.