The Ark sails from the marshes of Iraq to the canals of Venice

In 2021, Iraq participates for the first time ever in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, with artist Rashad Salim’s project ‘Ark Re-imagined: the Expeditionary Pavilion’ (May 20 – Nov. 21). This year also marks the Centenary of the founding of the modern State of Iraq. Curated by Safina Projects and with Community Jameel and CULTURUNNERS supporting production as piloti del padiglione (pavilion pilots), the pavilion returns to the origins of Iraq’s architectural legacy, celebrating the vernacular architecture and watercraft of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, and the seminal ‘alphabet of making’ from which early architecture emerged. 

Challenging standardised images of the Ark based on European boat-building techniques, Salim proposes ‘an Ark of its time and place’: an organic, tensile-built structure, its design derived from the vernacular construction techniques and boat types attributable to the period of the ancient Flood, a rise in sea level around 10,000 years ago that created what we know as the Gulf. Salim’s ‘expeditionary art’ practice employs the concept of the Ark as a means of enquiry into Iraq’s material cultural heritage. Since 2016, the Ark Re-imagined project has engaged artisans across central, southern and western Iraq to revive and document what remains of traditional boatbuilding, architecture and craft practices. 

The heritage, sustained since earliest recorded history, has been brought to the brink of extinction during recent decades of devastating conflict and trauma. Through outdoor installations and digital elements, the Expeditionary Pavilion engages dynamically with its location, exploring links between Venice’s delta wetland environment and proud boating traditions, and those of Basra and the Ahwar (marshlands) of southern Iraq. Like Venice, southern Iraq now faces the critical challenge of the Anthropocene, a climate event comparable to the ancient Flood. Ark Re-imagined addresses the crises of our time through enquiring into the transformative processes that shaped human culture and remain urgently relevant to our fragile future. 

The mission of the project is to gather resources and people and convene cross-cultural dialogue. Says Salim: “The Ark Re-imagined addresses the title of this year’s Biennale Architettura — ‘How will we live together?’ — by applying the principle of gathering.” The pavilion and documentation of the project are supported by the Iraq Cultural Health Fund created by Community Jameel and CULTURUNNERS, within The Future is Unwritten Artists’ Response Fund, a new initiative to provide financial and production support to artist-led projects that contribute to improved mental, social and environmental health in the wake of COVID-19. The pavilion programme is developed in conversation with the Healing Arts initiative, launched in partnership with the WHO Foundation under the auspices of the World Health Organization, as part of the United Nations 75th Anniversary Program (UN75). 

In 2020 Ark Re-imagined project was officially recognised by UN75 as an exemplar of an artist-led project implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

George Richards, Director of Community Jameel, said: “This exhibition and the broader Ark Re-Imagined programme reach deep into Iraq’s past while tackling very immediate problems, exacerbated by the pandemic, of trauma, loss of identity, and isolation.” Pavilion production is co-funded by ALIPH Foundation, while project research and programme content have been supported by funders, including Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Arab Council for the Social Sciences, Makiya-Kufa Charity, the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund in partnership with DCMS and Nahrein Network. Project Commissioner is the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Iraq. The Pavilion’s inaugural event in Venice was a conversation with Salim hosted by TBA21-Academy at Ocean Space on May 20. 

Salim is an Iraqi-German artist and interdisciplinary researcher, with a particular interest in ecology and the history and development of culture and technology, as reflected in ancient boats, vernacular architecture, crafts and intangible cultural heritage. He was born in 1957 in Khartoum, Sudan to a German mother and an Iraqi artist/diplomat father (Nizar Salim) from the well-known Selim family of artists. He travelled extensively from birth, spending his childhood in China, Sweden and Yugoslavia, lived in Iraq during his formative years (1970-1982) and studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad and Saint Martin’s in London. 

In 1977-78, as a crew member on Thor Heyerdahl’s Tigris expedition, he voyaged on a reed boat from Iraq across the Indian Ocean. During the 1980s and 1990s, he lived in Morocco and Yemen, where he worked as a sculptor and printmaker, engaged with local cultural heritage and co-founded cultural associations. As an artist, he has works in major collections, including the British Museum and the Aga Khan Collection. He was a trustee of iNCiA (International Network for Contemporary Iraqi Artists), 1998-2012. 

He has lived in London, UK, since 1999, returning to Iraq in 2003, 2013 and on a regular basis since 2016. Since establishing Safina Projects in 2017, he has delivered a programme of boat and craft workshops, heritage events on water, research and capacity-building in the field of Iraqi intangible cultural heritage, supported by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, Nahrein Network, and ALIPH Foundation, among others. Public access to waterfronts and waterways is an increasingly important theme in his work; with this aim, he is supporting the development of a network of locally managed youth boat clubs in Iraq. Curator Safina Projects is a creative practice that works to protect and revive the endangered craft heritage of Iraq, particularly its ancient boats, through art and cultural research projects that engage the public in Iraq and internationally. 

Community Jameel is an international organisation, tackling some of the world’s most urgent issues and challenges, using a pioneering approach grounded in evidence, science, data and technology in the fields of education, health and climate. CULTURUNNERS is as an independent platform for cross-cultural campaigns, exhibitions, films and live events, promoting pluralism, peace-building and sustainable development, through art. Launched at MIT in 2014, it prioritises artists-led projects that transform communities, societies and systems and foster greater empathy across ideological and geographical borders. 

by Muhammad Yusuf

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