Artist Wafaa Bilal of Alserkal’s Lawrie Shabibi Gallery shares how Alserkal Avenue became a haven for Middle Eastern artists like him.
“In the same way Brooklyn’s Williamsburg used to be an industrial and alternative arts scene in New York, Alserkal Avenue has been so in Dubai. The galleries there have really given a platform for artists, often refugees like myself, who have political concerns.
I picked Alserkal’s Lawrie Shabibi Gallery as a home for my art because the staff is so open-minded and doesn’t shy away from controversy. As other artists featured there, I was born in Iraq. I lived there until 25. That was 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I fled to a refugee camp in Arabia for two years, and then made my way to the U.S., where I live now. I left for a combination of reasons. I was studying geography in school, but I did my art on the side. I knew the regime had an eye on me, partly because it was normal for artists to be a target there at that time and partly because my family has a long history being targets of the regime. So I didn’t have a choice; I was on the run.
Most of my work reflects my concerns about Iraq, and the differences I see between the comfort in the U.S. and the violence in Iraq. It’s nice to be a part of a venue in the Middle East, because the context is very important for art, and my work resonates most being shown there.
My Ashes Series is depictions of events starting in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraqi invasion. I started collecting photographs of devastated areas, mostly from magazines or news outlets. I had this desire to connect physically and emotionally with my homeland, even though I couldn’t be there. So I recreated the photographs I was collecting in miniature. For the ashes, I used a mixture of human and other organic ashes—21 grams of ashes exactly, because that’s the weight of the human soul, or at least it’s said that the body becomes lighter by 21 grams after death. I photographed my recreations for the series. It’s definitely a reflection of the violence in the area, and the fact so many places were literally destroyed by bombings. It’s the kind of work that would be too edgy anywhere else in Dubai.”