Serwan Baran will represent Iraq at the 58th Venice Biennale, presenting a solo exhibition which will run from 11 May to 24 November 2019. This will be the fourth National Pavilion of Iraq commissioned by the Ruya Foundation and follows the critical success of ‘Archaic’ which Ruya commissioned for the 57th edition of the Biennale in 2017. This is the first time Iraq will be represented by a solo artist at the Biennale.
Iraqi-Kurdish artist Serwan Baran was born in Baghdad in 1968, and is considered part of the ‘new generation’ of Iraqi painters. He has lived through over 40 years of war in his country and was conscripted during conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s. During his time as a soldier and war artist, Baran was obligated to record the victories of the Iraqi army for government propaganda. His work became more expressionist when he began addressing his own military experience by deconstructing images of generals in grotesque, figural abstractions. Baran describes this artistic period as an attempt to silence “the nightmare inside me”.
The large-scale and site-specific works of ‘Fatherland’ will invoke the feeling of a war zone upon entering, in line with Baran’s signature dark and atmospheric style. The exhibition will feature a monumental acrylic painting, The Last Meal, depicting a bird’s-eye view of soldiers killed during their last meal. Elements of collage will be incorporated, including objects from Iraqi military uniforms given to the artist by families of the deceased. These uniforms were collected from the Iran-Iraq War, the
second Gulf War and the war with ISIS.
The exhibition will also include a sculpture, The Last General, a life-size clay replica of an army general inside a sunken life boat cast in fibreglass. The figure of the general is sculpted so that half of his body appears decayed, while the other half appears intact and wears a uniform and medals. The sculpture will also include elements of collage, using cloth from military uniforms. Resembling an ancient mummy in a sarcophagus, this clay coloured sculpture is intended as a reminder of the brutality of military leaders, as well as a tribute to perished men who have become part of the soil.
Iraq and the region have endured reigns of terror and authoritarian rule in the name of nationalist and religious ideologies, often driven by the need to wage war both in competition for, and in defence of, the ‘Fatherland’. The term al-watan (meaning ‘homeland’ or ‘nation’) is used by dictators in demagogic speeches and in fascist literature. The exhibition is a commentary on the masculine and paternalistic dimensions of political culture in Iraq and the region.
In particular, Baran seeks to interrogate the ways in which the notion of the ‘Fatherland’ has been used to justify the horrors of war, the soldier’s efforts, and a leader’s tactics. The soldier, often depicted as a valiant and obedient hero, is more often a victim of brutal authority. Through an examination of the abuse of the patria, the exhibition is also an exploration of the nature of man, his indulgence to his violent nature, and to his own dictatorial instincts that find an outlet through war.
Tamara Chalabi, Chair and Co-Founder of the Ruya Foundation and co-curator of the exhibition has said:
“It is an important development for this pavilion to have a solo artist represent Iraq for the first time. Serwan Baran’s work is fitting artistically, both as a deeply personal testimony of his own experiences and a universal commentary on the condition of mankind. I am pleased to also be sharing his singular expressionist style as a painter, in a medium that has great significance within the history of modern Iraqi art.”
Paolo Colombo, co-curator has said:
“Serwan Baran’s large-scale works are forceful denunciations of the horrors of war. They are meant to overwhelm the viewer, as one is overwhelmed in the proximity of a large film screen. His statement is not restrained, and the scale of his works is in perfect tune with the volume of his proclamation.”