Artists Respond to War as They Experienced It, at Home or on TV

Museums in New York City rarely present exhibitions that focus on international politics or the political expressions of foreign artists. They have commented on the political in America, as recent nuanced and cogent exhibitions dealing with African-American art movements, women’s rights, and gun violence, for example, attest. But foreign politics doesn’t seem to capture the interest or attract the numbers required to justify a costly exhibition.

The exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 at MoMA PS1 is thus a brave effort, and a necessary addition to an art world program that falls short of internationally-themed and timely exhibitions. In a striking coincidence, this show on the consequences of American interference in Iraq comes at a time when the country is convulsed in the largest protests it has seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Much of the current social unrest in Iraq can be viewed as a legacy of the American presence there. (See a related article, “Inside Iraq’s Protests: Students Are Defiant in Their Demands.”)

MoMA PS1’s chief curator Peter Eleey and curator Ruba Katrib make it clear in interviews that Theater of Operations serves “to remind people of the importance and significance of conflicts. It’s not a show about the war but a show on the arts made in response to the war. It’s about the telling of art in the context of its own and by what already exists—the shared history of the region and history of the West.”

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Featuring 88 artists—including six Kuwaitis, 30 Iraqis and 30 Americans—the works selected capture multiple reactions to this 20-year period of military events. These aren’t works simply about the visuals of the war, but about the toll on the landscape of invaded land; the disappearances of people; the torture of captured Iraqi soldiers; and the implications of international economic sanctions against Iraq, which affected creative production and constrained artistic output owing to the limitations of material.

Invasions Shown Live 

Theater of Operations has been installed across the whole of MoMA PS1, a vast space that fills a former school building. (MoMA PS1 is a showcase for contemporary art in Queens, N.Y., curatorially separate from the main Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.)

“War Diary No. 1,” 1991, by Dia al-Azzawi (Photo: Dia al-Azzawi).

The exhibition sets the stage for art reflecting the U.S.-led invasions of 1991 and 2003 by highlighting the precursor to these events, Iraq’s invasion and brief occupation of Kuwait in 1990. These events are seen through the works of Kuwaiti artists, including Thuraya Al-Baqsami. Her famous print “No to War,” which circulated in Kuwait during the 1990 conflict, reminds us of the short but horrific event which was shown live on television­—a first in TV broadcasting history. (Vietnam is often called the first television war, but the fighting wasn’t broadcast live.)

The exhibition’s power lies not only in its theme, but in how it demonstrates that the portrayal of war has permeated contemporary image culture. Today, we are inured to violence on TV, receiving scenes of live events nanoseconds after they occur, but in 1990, live images of military battles were shockingly new.

Not all 307 artworks on display in the exhibition respond explicitly to the topic of the invasions. “Montgomery Alabama 1955?,” a poster work by the anonymous collective Guerrilla Girls, compares the status of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in 1991 to segregationist laws in the American South during the civil rights era.

But the inclusion of a variety of voices and reactions to the horror of war helps to strengthen the show’s curatorial premise that the American invasions of Iraq had massive implications on the ethics of images and notions of image-creation. Those implications were felt not only in the news media but in the international art world. The portrayal of war in image-culture thus started to evolve rapidly, despite coming only fifteen years after the end of the Vietnam War, as Eleey points out.

The exhibition succeeds on the whole not only because it presents a rather difficult topic with a balanced inclusion of Iraqi artists alongside Americans and others, but because it allows for a multiplicity of artistic experiences and reactions. The horror is seen from all perspectives.

“Baghdad City: US Map,” 2007, by Hanaa Malallah (Photo: by Anthony Dawton the artist and Azzawi Collection).
“Baghdad City: US Map,” 2007, by Hanaa Malallah (Photo: by Anthony Dawton the artist and Azzawi Collection).

Limited Access to Materials

The presence of artworks produced by Iraqi artists during this time—particularly the novelty of the dafatir, or handmade notebooks that served as sketchbooks—reveals the experimental nature of artists coping with the effects of sanctions. This resourcefulness is represented in works by artists including Hana Malallah, Rafa Nasiri, and Dia Azzawi. (The latter was in the United Kingdom, not in Iraq, during the invasions but reacted to the events unfolding on his screen.)

Although many of these artists produced work with limited access to materials and ideas emerging during the 1990s and early 2000s as a global art world formed, the works still show uninhibited artistic creation, marrying traditional Iraqi craft and aesthetics with contemporary notions of art production. These ideas permeate their production even after the invasions and occupations have supposedly ended: Malallah’s 2015 work Ruins Roar is a large burnt canvas, its details of charred material evocative of destruction and burned rubble.

What’s most significant here is that non-Western art is being presented on par with its American and European counterparts. For Arab artists who have long been left out of the global art canon, the recognition of an art movement with its individual artists and players is a step forward in correcting this imbalance and recognizing that modern art developed along multiple timelines and patterns of artistic evolution.

“The 1990 war in Kuwait was contiguous with the start of the Internet,” points out Eleey. By 2003, the Internet helped fuel the creation of a shared experience of global solidarity which led to large anti-war protests around the globe. The proliferation of information, material, and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr, he says, led to the discovery of the atrocities committed by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison. What this exhibition highlights so clearly is the global start of a new visual order, a reality that is forever changed.

Theater of Operations is not just a show about the invasions, but about how these images of war have forced us to more easily stomach such spectacles thereafter. It certainly serves as a prompt for self-reflection on how we consume news, and how the public at large has become on the whole capable of ingesting what once was considered uningestible.

Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 continues at MoMA PS1 through March 1, 2020. The museum, in Queens, N.Y., is open Thursdays through Mondays, from noon to 6 p.m.


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