Iraqi-Kurdish artist Serwan Baran will present the solo exhibition ‘Fatherland’ at the Iraq Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. Baran was born in Baghdad in 1968, and lives in Beirut, Lebanon. He graduated from Iraq’s Babel University with a degree in Fine Arts and was taught by the Syrian-German artist Marwan. Baran served as a soldier and war artist in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His work became more expressionist after leaving Iraq in 2005, and he began addressing his own military experience in grotesque, figural abstractions. Baran is considered among the ‘New Generation’ of Iraqi Painters and ‘Fatherland’ is a commentary on the masculine and paternalistic dimensions of political culture in Iraq and the region. Baran speaks to Ruya about his work and his two new commissions for the Iraq Pavilion.

Sketch for The Last Meal (2010). © the artist and Ruya Foundation

You are the first artist to represent Iraq in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale. What do you hope ‘Fatherland’ will achieve?

Iraq has been at war for 47 years, and I am 50 years old. I want visitors to feel shocked as they enter the exhibition, and to understand what it means to have lived a lifetime of relentless and never-ending conflict. When I was two years old, the Iraqi army was already fighting against the first Kurdish rebellion for autonomy. Iraq then participated in the ’73 Arab-Israeli war. I fought as a soldier in the the Iran-Iraq war and was a war artist during the First Gulf War. The embargo of the ‘90s isolated us, like the North Koreans today, and we heard American strikes daily. Uprisings against Saddam in southern Iraq and Kurdistan were brutally quashed. The 2003 American invasion was followed by sectarian violence and the recent conflict with IS. 

How does your experience as a soldier and war artist shape the work that we see today?

The soldiers and generals in my work appear weak. Their faces convey disappointment, their bodies are distressed, deformed or mutilated. But as a war artist with the Iraqi Army, I depicted victories on the frontline and their heroes. It was propaganda. My portraits of Saddam and of army generals emphasised their strength. Exposing the slightest insecurity in the leaders’ faces would have gotten me into trouble. I painted in a realistic style which did not match our reality as soldiers.

As a war artist with the Iraqi Army, exposing the slightest insecurity in the leaders’ faces would have gotten me into trouble.

Did your training as a soldier affect your approach to painting?

I am haunted by the trivialisation of violence. When I joined the army, I was tasked with beheading chickens in the kitchen. Seeing my hesitation, the superior said: “Don’t worry, it’s easy.” I was squeamish until it became a routine. Years later, I painted chickens with severed limbs: I had to expel the image from my mind. Some young soldiers were unaffected by violence, but others, like me, had to adapt. Many cried on their first days in the battlefield, but they soon stopped. At home and in the army, they taught us that men don’t cry.In Arab history, dictatorial leaders have fashioned a chauvinistic image of strength.

The term al-watan (meaning ‘homeland’ or ‘nation’) is often used by dictators in demagogic speeches and in fascist literature. How do you understand the term fatherland in your work?

In Arabic, we refer to the nation as a motherland, or watan al umm. Yet through our history, dictatorial leaders have fashioned a chauvinistic image of strength. For example, The victory steles for the Akkadian ruler Naram Sin, who reigned c. 2254 – 2218 BC, depict his conquests and prowess. Tarik Ibn Ziad, the Muslim conqueror of medieval Spain and an icon in modern Arab culture, told his warriors: “Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy,” meaning they could fight to the death, or drown escaping. Saddam and the Ba’ath Party’s militarism projected its strength through brutality and dominance. The American soldiers who invaded Iraq brought their own version of masculinity. Women are revered as fighters in Kurdish culture, and many women joined resistance forces such as the Peshmerga in Iraq, the PKK in Turkey and the YPG against ISIS. But among Arabs, war is the reserve of men. The term fatherland describes our situation better.

How have you shown this militarism in your work?

The soldier and the general are two distinct characters in my recent work. The general gives orders and is decorated for his achievements. The soldier fights like a hero, but he is ultimately a victim. As student conscripts in the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam forced us to the frontline against our will, including only sons and the physically impaired. We were imprisoned by conscription. I often use photographs of my own body as the model for the dead soldiers, adopting positions from my memories of the battlefield.

Sketch for The Last General (2018), unveiled at the opening of ‘Fatherland’ © the artist and Ruya Foundation

Your new commission for the pavilion, a clay sculpture entitled The Last General, depicts the corpse of a dead general on a boat. What is the significance of the boat, and how have you connected it to this war scene.

The Sumerians, and many other ancient civilisations, buried their dead by putting the body out to sea on a reed boat. The vessels carried the deceased into the afterlife, thus evading death. High ranking army generals often bypass imprisonment and death. I imagined a general who escapes on a lifeboat, but drowns in the process, echoing Ibn Ziad’s famous saying. He lies in the boat partially decomposed like a mummy in a sarcophagus and his army decorations are still visible. 

What is the role of an artist in war?

There is no such thing as artistic freedom in war time. The artist is either a trumpet for the regime, or he avoids politics altogether. The Iraqi poet Sargon Boulos is the only writer to have fully conveyed the experience of war, in my opinion. Boulos never fought as a soldier, but his poems accurately describe my own experiences. I chose two of his texts for publication in the ‘Fatherland’ catalogue.

I am repeating the shock over and over again, to rid myself of the nightmare.

The body of work which you are most known for today was produced after you left Iraq. What happened?

After 2003, we were ecstatic by the change of regime, and then we were disappointed. It was a period of joy, followed by the complete opposite. The chaos of sectarian fighting made things worse than before. It was a shock for us all, and I had to express this in my paintings. I fled to Amman, Jordan, and my work also became more emotional and expressionist.

As an artist today, do you still feel a duty to document and archive Iraq’s wars?

My work is a reaction to war, not a chronicle. I am repeating the shock over and over again, to rid myself of the nightmare. I do it because I’m opening up.

Sketch for The Last Meal.

Your commission, ‘The Last Meal’, depicts soldiers killed while having a meal. How did you develop the narrative in the painting?

For me, sharing a meal is a symbol for co-existence, but in the army I saw soldiers killed while they were eating. The painting’s aerial view makes the viewer a witness to the entire crime, as if they had flown above it. Also, from above, the human figure looks stilted and distorted. But because the soldiers are lying down, curled in a foetal position, the aerial perspective does not affect the body. They look like silk worms, laboring away to produce silk for their masters.

Iraq’s dead soldiers are co-authors of my painting.

What is the significance of the soldiers’ clothing, which you have also hung to the work?

In the past year, I’ve collected the letters and army uniforms of deceased Iraqi soldiers from their families in Iraq. Some families refused to engage with me, but others wanted their loss to be made public. They allowed me to publish the letters in the ‘Fatherland’ catalogue, with the soldiers’ real identities. The uniforms hung in The Last Meal involve the dead soldiers in the work, as co-authors.

Do you worry about perpetuating the negative media stereotypes of Iraq, as a war-torn and violent country?

No. Whereas photojournalism documents specific conflicts, my paintings refer to war past and present, including WWII or Vietnam, as well as the lifetime of conflict that Iraqis and I have experienced.

If depicting war is a form of exorcism, as you suggest, when will this process end for you?

I don’t know. Until I feel the need to stop expressing it.