Rebuilding knowledge with artist Wafaa Bilal

In his own words, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal discusses his global campaign to revive the College of Fine Arts library in Baghdad. 

"As I was coming of age in Iraq, books became a way of escaping a harsh reality. It was a form of entertainment and escapism, but also a way of saying: “I matter, I have the knowledge, I am someone.” 

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to many libraries losing most of their belongings. The College of Fine Arts library lost more than 70,000 books. When I was asked to do a show in Canada, specifically about libraries, I wondered: How can an artwork propel a society into the future? It could inspire people and break the isolation. I decided the show should be participatory; rewarding, not alienating, and that it had to have tangible results. 

There’s an anecdote that the Mongolian invasion of Baghdad in the 13th century destroyed the largest library in the world at that time. The Mongols dumped all the books of Baghdad into the Tigris River. So, the title of this project is ‘168:01’ — 168 hours — referring to the books that stayed in the river for seven days and bled ink. I imagined them becoming just white, with no knowledge within. 

To date, we have sent more than 2000 books to the University of Baghdad, our first university partner and we've collected more than 4000 books through exhibitions and donations. With the support of project donors, we funded rebuilding the student reading hub at the University of Baghdad to create an updated learning facility. 

In 2020, we expanded our book collecting operation to partner with more Iraqi universities and cultural institutions, broadening our capacity to get books and resources into the hands of Iraqi artists."

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