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photo of gallery interior with a series of white boxes

Installation view, Contemporary Art Iraq, Courtesy Cornerhouse. Photo by Paul Greenwood

Selecting works across a wide range of media by 19 Iraqi-based artists, Cornerhouse shows a subjective snapshot of the current Iraq art scene. Harry Matthews reports on the show in Manchester until 20 June 2010

Co-curators Adalet R.Garmiany and Sarah Perks, along with exhibition manager Tomas Harold, have collaborated to bring the exhibition to Manchester’s Cornerhouse.

‘Unfortunately, we had a problem getting the art works to Manchester. The overland trailer got holed up in Turkey for three weeks after crossing from Kudisthan. Adalet was able to pull some strings with various contacts, and finally we got a letter from the Turkish regional government which released them across the boarder into Europe.”

Tomas adds that it then got more complicated: “We wanted the artists to attend the opening night of the exhibition. However, despite support from the Kurdish regional government and the British Ambassador in Iraq, they were declined.”

photo of woman in a veil holding a young child

Julie Adnan, Born in Jail, 2009

In a time of globalisation and rapid technological change, it was fortunate the artists could still get involved using a live SKYPE LINK. So they appeared projected on the wall.

Cornerhouse sought submissions from across Iraq. Tomas Harold and the curators were keen to find contemporary photography, video, sculpture and painting.

The exhibition is on three floors. The first, ‘Of Time and Tradition’, shows changes that are occurring in contemporary Iraq. Sarwar Mohamad Amin’s documentary Yayli (2007) follows the livelihood of Hussein Fatah who works with horses and an old carriage or yayli.

The film pays homage to the past ‘when armies of automobiles did not fill the air’ and ‘you could live like a king on two dinars’. There are moving scenes of ecstatic children riding on the yaylies - a rare sight on the streets of Iraq today.

A family hire the carriage for a wedding; even though Hussein can’t really afford to feed his horses anymore. It concludes with the sight of Hussein driving a car in heavy hooting traffic in As Sulaymaniya. It reminds me that we only know the reality of things when we lose them.

Gallery two shows the rapid nation building that is going on in Iraq, and gives a sense of enjoyment in western ‘contemporary’ modes of art. Muslim’s Displacing (2009) - a cross between a bench of nails and a commode, dressed in unappealing colour. The sculpture is painted yellow and ultramarine with a Babylonian eye, perhaps giving it the appearance of a fish to ward off evil.

Jamal Penjweny, Iraq is Flying, 2006-2009

I also liked ‘Iraq is Flying’, by Jamal Penjweny - a series of portraits of extraordinary everyday people on the streets in Northern Iraq.

Tomas Harold, says: ‘Such images evoke feelings of respect for the resilience of an oppressed people in the face of disruption to the business of living. It is a joyous piece celebrating how people have literally risen above their situation.’

The artist, Jamal, is perfectly serious when he says, ‘the experience of growing up in a place where war is the norm’ means tragically that ‘children think passenger planes drop bombs.’

Gallery 3, on the top floor, is called ‘Protest.’ There are art works here referring to the conflicts and war of recent times. It shows the different ways people have sought to rise above their situation in a positive and joyous way.

Muhammad Saleh Rosramzada & Wrya Budaghi, My Finger Didn't Get Ink, 2009

lmages include photos of guys with white painted faces, hands and a football, walking through the street. Another shows a human round-about formed on a busy road. The whimsical escapist pieces clearly show faith in human goodness.

If you believe in the emphatic rejection of much contemporary aesthetics and want to re-instate that old idea of art as a channel of grace then there is something of value to be seen here.

The contemporary art from Iraq selected for the show at Cornerhouse, has won a victory for the artists represented. I ask Tomas if he has a favourite piece.

He pointed out the series of four photo-portraits with the artists wearing different tribal costumes, adopting different identities. For Tomas, it represents how ‘you can change your religion and reasonably dictate the style of the life you live’ - if you live in a liberal democracy.

Go to the Cornerhouse website for further details of Contemporary Art Iraq