The curator Aneta Szylak held a second workshop for artists in Baghdad with the Ruya Foundation. The aim of the 4 day workshop was for artists to develop a vernacular artistic language, so that they can engage with contemporary art practices, while producing work that is relevant to their local context.

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“A vernacular artistic language has a unique character. As with architecture, it comes out of necessity and the available materials,” says Szylak. “The question that we are trying to answer is, what is the condition from which artists speak? For some, the motivations are political or social, and for others, its the physical materials that can lead to an interesting visual route”.

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Aneta Szylak (back of table) addresses group of 28 artists.

“Conceptual art emerged almost 60 years ago, but the art scene in Iraq is stuck in the European modernist tradition” says Szylak, who began working with artist in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq over ten years ago.“The challenge is breaking that barrier, while also finding a vernacular for contemporary Iraqi art.”

The 28 participants were artists and students from Baghdad, Sulaymaniya, Hilla and Erbil. Ahead of the workshop Szylak asked them to bring a photograph that represents a place in Iraq that has been important in their lives. The place may still exist today, or it has been damaged by the forces of war, urbanisation, and property development. “These images were the basis for a longer conversation that the artists had about their visual understanding of Iraq. What we have as imagery to represent our lives is often different from the daily lives that we lead”, Szylak explains.

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After several sessions of drawing and discussion, the participants worked in groups in order to develop a 3-D object from an image that had been produced during the workshop. The emphasis was on critical group work: “The artists worked together and combined their analysis of the image to create a three dimensional object.” The artists used materials that were readily available to them in Baghdad. One of objects, for example, is entirely made of matchboxes. These objects were later developed into prototypes for four sculpture and installation works.

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The second module of the workshop was dedicated to performance and performance art. The participants worked in groups of 7 to create two scenes and choreographies about every day life in Iraq. The scenes ranged from crossing check points and watch towers, to the growing influence of social media on day to day interactions.

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Outdoor performative pieces were part of the group work sessions.

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The artists have agreed to keep working on these models and performative pieces together outside of the workshop. The final products will be exhibited at the Gulbenkian Building in Baghdad in October 2017. With Szylak and the Ruya Foundation’s directors, the artists spent the last afternoon of the workshop forward planning for the exhibition.

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A scoping visit at the Gulbenkian Hall. The artists will work together to finally the installation works and organise the exhbition. Photo: Ruya Foundation.

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Scoping visit at the Baghdad Train Station. Photo: Ruya Foundation.

Though Szylak has worked with artists from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq for over ten years, this is her second trip to Baghdad with the Ruya Foundation. “Working in Sulaymaniya is a bit easier, as artists in the Kurdistan Region are not as isolated. There are less travel restrictions for visitors to the KRI and more local artists go abroad to study,” Szylak explains. “This is not the case in Baghdad, but the city has other strengths. For example, due to the nature of the arts education, the artists here have developed incredible skills and craftsmanship which they can now apply to more conceptual work”.