Insights

Untold Stories of Baghdad

baghdad, iraq
Al Kadhimiya Mosque, suburb of Baghdad. Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GFDL 1.2 licence

Thikra Alwash, a civil engineer and the first woman mayor of Baghdad, said last February that she was giving herself ten years to revive the war-torn city, prioritising the repair of war-scarred infrastructure and the restoration of the city’s heritage.

Although Baghdad is widely known for the constant terrorist attacks by ISIS since the end of the war in 2011, the Iraqi capital used to be one of the most modernised cities in the Middle East. Under the leadership of King Faisal II, Iraq shed all vestiges of British colonialism and invested oil revenues into development projects. By the end of the 1950s, the city had cinemas, theatres and clubs, establishing itself as a thriving cosmopolitan and cultural scene, attracting many international designers.

Borrowing the title from Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposal for an Opera House, Kuwait-born artist Ala Younis presents Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad, an installation that pays tribute to the women who played a significant role in the urban and cultural development of modern Baghdad. Looking beyond the male dominance of Baghdad’s politics and architecture, Ala uncovers the untold roles played by women architects, civil engineers, writers and artists.

Ala’s installation, co-commissioned by the Delfina Foundation in London and Art Jameel in Dubai, is the result of an extensive investigative work into Iraq’s tumultuous past.

“My research looks through six decades of Baghdad’s history,” Ala told NADJA via email. “Covering military interventions, heads of state, master plans, modern art, international and local architects and the monuments that appeared and disappeared as a result of these configurations.”

At the centre of her installation is an architectural maquette of the Baghdad Stadium and Sport Centre, designed by iconic French architect Le Corbusier and named after Saddam Hussain. Seven out-of-scale female figures are scattered around it, in different poses depicting key roles they played in Iraq’s history.

Balki Sharara, writer and wife of prominent Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji, is shown carrying books as a reference to the copies of her husband’s works she smuggled while he was imprisoned. Balki therefore allowed him to write three of his seminal books, including Al-Ukhaidir and the Crystal Palace, devoted to the major work of Iraq’s past.

The model of Iraqi born architect Zaha Hadid, who inspired many students in the 1990s, has her hands behind her back because although she designed the Central Bank of Iraq in 2012, she work on any buildings in Baghdad.

“This work is an attempt to reconstruct history beyond the dominant narratives”

The stories of these influential women emerge from a dense juxtaposition of archival materials, prints and drawings arranged on the wall. Anecdotes, poem extracts, dialogues and photos are interwoven with a chronological account of Iraq’s changing political backdrop and its impact on the modern city of Baghdad.

“My work attempts to engage materials from archives and oral histories as much as it does with elements from everyday life. Through my work I have been able to access and re-tell stories that may have been forgotten or marginalised” Ala explained.

Art Jameel Ala Younis-5
Plan For Feminist Greater Baghdad, Art Jameel, Dubai 2018

Like the story of American architect Ellen Jawdat. Ellen not only designed the headquarters and orphanage spaces of the Red Crescent Society in Baghdad in 1949, but her advice on the ideal height for house roofs proved to be invaluable. As Ala highlights in her project, American studies have demonstrated that 2.7m allows for optimal air circulation in Baghdad’s warm weather. Ellen was also involved in getting German architect Walter Gropius the commission for the design of the University of Baghdad.

In the late 1970s, political changes in Iraq brought changes in Baghdad’s urban planning and architecture. When Saddam Hussein became president in 1979, he ordered large development projects to be carried across Iraq – including the construction of several monuments in Baghdad – in which many women took part.

One of the architects featured in Ala’s installation is Wijdan Mahir. Widjan was part of the team that supervised the designs of the Martyr’s Monument and the museum’s facilities under it. She worked at the department of tourism in the Ministry of Culture in the early 1980s, leading many development projects across Iraq. One of the major projects she oversaw was the renovation of Khan Mirjan, a structure in Baghdad built in the 14th century as a roadside inn for travellers, and turned into a restaurant. She also published independently three issues of an architectural periodical titled Imara, before the publication was interrupted in 1990.

Ala also tells the story of civil engineer Azhar Abdel Wahab. Azhar was appointed director of the Ministry of Transport at the beginning of the 1980s and was nicknamed “Mrs Iraq Development” for the many national projects she supervised. She oversaw the development of stations, streets and airports, as well as the construction of Saddam’s Tower, a 205m TV tower and the highest building in Baghdad. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the tower was occupied by American soldiers and was renamed Baghdad Tower.

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Ala Younis talking about her installation Plan For Feminist Greater Baghdad, Art Jameel, Dubai 2018

Artists’ influence in Baghdad

Leila Al-Attar was a painter who graduated from the Academy of fine Arts in Baghdad in 1965. She held five one-woman shows in Iraq and took part in various Biennials in Iraq, Kuwait and Egypt. One of her artworks, the tile mosaic depicting President Bush as a floor mat at the entrance of the popular business hotel Al Rashid, is believed to be the reason behind her death during a U.S. missile attack in 1993. The mosaic, done after the Persian Gulf war, was intended to force any visitors entering the hotel to walk over President Bush’s face.

Ala’s installation shows how at the beginning of the 1980s Leila sat on the board that turned the designs of a shopping mall into Saddam Centre for the Arts (renamed National Museum of Modern Art in 2006). She later became the director of the centre as well as the first director of the Fine Arts Department in the Ministry of Culture and Media.

Another featured artist is Nuha Al Radi. The Iraqi artist and writer began writing a diary in English in the early days of the first Gulf war in 1991. First published as diary entries in British newspapers, the Baghdad Diaries details the lives of Baghdad’s people during the war. During the embargo, Nuha once dreamt that she was carrying a tree that bore loaves of bread she distributed to people, a dream that Ala has reproduced.

Exhibited alongside Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad is Ala’s original work, the 2015 Plan for Greater Baghdad. This time, the same architectural maquette is surrounded by male architects – including Chadirji. In telling the stories of male protagonists, Ala explored issues relating to the protection of monuments for posterity, and the creation of plans for Baghdad as either an expression of power or as a necessity.

Drawing parallels with the male version of the installation, Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad is an attempt to reconstruct history beyond the dominant narratives.

“Most of the materials related to architecture in Baghdad were authored by male architects, the information on the women intervention had to be researched through direct conversations with them,” Ala told us.

By re-examing the history of Baghdad and making space for women, Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad not only gives us a great insight into the lives of women who shaped Iraq’s culture but also exposes how women’s achievements have been minimised around the world, now and throughout history.

Alia Chebbab

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