On Monday, March 10, Iraq-born video artist Wafaa Bilal was on hand for a reception at 6 PM followed at 7 PM by a presentation about his installation “Virtual Jihadi” which was to have been displayed at The Sanctuary for Independent Media.
The installation was scheduled to be open to the public through Friday, March 15 from noon to 2 PM as well as before and after regularly scheduled events through April 4, 2008.
The exhibit was shut down–along with The Sanctuary for Independent Media itself–on trumped-up code violation charges by City of Troy officials on the morning of Tuesday, March 11, just minutes before the show was to open to the public. The Sanctuary remained closed until a grand re-opening celebration on April 26 capped off two months of fundraising and renovations.
Another version of this installation had opened on March 5, 2008 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but as reported by the Times Union it was abruptly closed the following day. Coverage of the controversy has spread around the country, with stories appearing in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and NY Newsday. Writing from Paris, France cultural critic Brian Holmes offered his analysis of the art panic at RPI and Inside Higher Ed wrote about the episode in the broader context of campus censorship, followed by another story when the show opened at the Sanctuary.
A local Republican operative on the payroll of the City of Troy, Rensselaer County and NY State called for protests at the Monday, March 10 show opening at the Sanctuary in an article in the Troy Record.
For full details, watch this 22 minute video documentary about the controversy produced by the Hudson Mohawk Independent Media Center.
In the widely marketed video game “Quest for Saddam,” players fight stereotypical Iraqi foes and try to kill Saddam. Al Qaeda did its own take, creating an online video game using the structure of “Quest for Saddam” but adding a new “skin” to turn the game into a hunt for Bush: “The Night of Bush Capturing.” Now artist Wafaa Bilal has hacked the Al Qaeda version of the game to put his own more nuanced spin on this epic conflict.
In “The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi,” Bilal casts himself as a suicide-bomber in the game. After learning of the real-life death of his brother in the war, he is recruited by Al Qaeda to join the hunt for Bush. This work is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as “Quest for Saddam,” along with vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S.’s failed strategy in securing Iraq. The work also aims to shed light on groups that traffic in crass and hateful stereotypes of Arab culture with games like “Quest for Saddam” and other media.
Wafaa Bilal was named 2007 Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, which wrote, “No artwork created in Chicago in 2007 received as much attention as Wafaa Bilal’s ‘Domestic Tension,’ an interactive performance piece that subjected the Iraqi-born artist to a month of bombardment by paintballs from Internet viewers.”
According to Wafaa Bilial:
My art is most influenced by the pain and suffering of growing up under Sadaam Hussein’s repressive rule from 1968 to the recent “Iraqi Freedom War”. I experienced violence on a daily basis, and visions of death and terror together with the anguish to the Iraqi people are irrevocably etched in my memory. My generation in Iraq is defined by decades of war. Since coming to the United States I have also seen great injustice and suffering in the forms of poverty, racism, and many other forms of discrimination and hatred. From this point of departure, through art I strive to uncover an overarching human condition while creating a space for provocation, dialogue, and contemplation. As my friend and colleague Gregg Bordowitz has written, when we are exposed to violence on a daily basis, how can we, as political artists, convey this experience clearly to the viewer and leave a lasting impression that is fresh and solid in its conclusions, not cliché?
A constant negotiation must take place in order to embrace the aesthetic pleasure of the image’s surface, which is so necessary to capture the imagination, and to convey the aesthetic pain of the content. The failure of this negotiation can easily result in the alienation of the viewer, while a successful negotiation may result in active engagement and an opening of the viewer’s perspective. While I do not wish to impose narrow interpretations of my work but struggle to create complex and muli-dimensional images, I also do not feel we currently have the privilege to enjoy art purely as aesthetic pleasure. It is a misconception that art has ever been pure; historically it has been a means of expressing personal and societal realities and interpretations. We must actively employ the tension and incongruence produced by the coexistence of aesthetic pleasure and aesthetic pain to attract and jolt the viewer in a thought-provoking manner. As an active player in society and as both educator and agitator, the artist must keep pushing these boundaries.
The photographs I create are highly symbolic, “hyper-real” landscapes, landscapes of possibilities existing just beyond reality, expressing emotions and conditions that permeate reality. They equally could be called “interior landscapes,” representative of the psychology of human suffering in a society ruled by oppression, domination, and fear. Figures exist in equal balance with the landscapes, the images drawing their complexity from this dramatic polar tension. Within the frame, time and place loses specificity to become transcendent and expressive of a broader human condition.
Video installations provide another level of impact besides the content of the image: we observe movement, a physical language the body understands. I play with the viewer’s presence and engagement or lack thereof, allowing this to directly impact the action and outcome of the piece. As the viewer may be far removed from the conflict addressed within the work, it is important to communicate to the viewer through a recognizable visual language, and so I filter the subject through historical and psychological contexts of the subject’s specific locale. The frame acts as a historical window to the past, while the moving image exemplifies a persistent-present, a current condition influenced by internal or external circumstances that inhibit change. The moment something is done to change a situation, the persistent-present becomes a progressive present where change can occur.
My memories of Iraq and my disenchantment with politics have not left me cynical, nor drained of hope for humanity. On the contrary, I am filled with belief in the power of the people to control their own destinies, and I continue to believe in social justice. I hope to foster a sense of self-empowerment in my audience and to counter the sense of powerlessness people feel in the face of inhumanity.”
Wafaa Bilal was born in Iraq on June 10, 1966. Because a member of his family had been accused of disloyalty to his country, Wafaa was denied the opportunity to pursue his dream of being an artist. Instead, he was to attend college to major in geography. While in college, he continued to pursue his art and was arrested and tortured for his political art work against Sadaam Hussein.
Shortly after the Gulf War, Wafaa was inspired by President Bush’s message to the Iraqi citizens that if they attempted to overthrow Sadaam, the US would stand behind them. He became involved in organizing opposition to the government and was scheduled for arrest and execution when he escaped into Kuwait. There he was accused of being a spy and was close to being shot when his student ID convinced them he told the truth.
Wafaa was sent to a refugee camp on the Kuwaiti border. In the camp, people laughed when rather than accept life in a tent he began forming brick that he dried in the sun and fashioned into a home. The adobe served a practical purpose, for it provided relative safety from abduction by Kuwaiti soldiers who sneaked into tents in the middle of the night to kidnap young people for sale to Iraqi soldiers who tortured, raped and executed them or the Turkish soldiers themselves would rape and kill them.
For two years, Wafaa lived in limbo not knowing if each day would be his last. Still Wafaa worked to improve his art, cleaning toilets in the camp to earn the money for art supplies, buying supplies for children for art therapy to help them to work through the horrors witnessed. His experiences developed within him an abhorrence of violence and oppression and strengthened his inner resolve.
In 1992, Wafaa came to the United States and took classes to learn English. Then, he began art studies at the University of New Mexico where he excelled. His art is of a political nature that speaks to oppression of the human spirit, including that of women who are bound by the rules of culture. He has won many awards for his art as well as a scholarship to the Chicago Institute of Art for post graduate study. He is now teaching at that institution.
In addition, Wafaa travels to give lectures on the oppressive nature of Sadaam’s regime in the hope of informing people of the complexities of the situation as well as the atrocities committed and the importance of nonviolent means of ending conflict. It has been 14 years since he was last able to see his mother and younger siblings. He speaks to them on the phone to hear how they flee from one war torn city to another in an effort to find safety. His 21 year-old brother who was staunchly apolitical lost his life to stray American gunfire. His father died when his health deteriorated after the death of his youngest son.