Bilal’s white books are like ghosts waiting to live again

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Wafaa Bilal: 168:01
Dunlop Gallery

Until June 25

The timing for this exhibition by Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal was very nearly perfect. But then the Saskatchewan Party government “walked back” the gutting it had administered to the provincial library system in its March budget.

I’ll return to that later, but first a bit about Bilal. He has a BFA from University of New Mexico, and an MFA from Art Institute of Chicago, and is an associate professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s exhibited internationally, including the 2015 Venice Biennale, and 168.01 was curated by the Art Gallery of Windsor’s Srimoyee Mitra.

The exhibition takes its name from an infamous incident in Iraqi history when an invading Mongol army torched all of Baghdad’s libraries during a 1258 C.E. siege. Legend holds that books from Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom, reputed at the time to be the largest library in the world), were used to build a bridge across the Tigris for the army to cross.

For seven days (i.e. 168 hours), the books bled ink into the river until they were drained of knowledge. Coming during the Golden Age of Islam, it was definitely a tragic moment for Iraqis. And it was far from the only time the country was ravaged by foreign invaders. That’s a second source of inspiration for Bilal, as he contemplates all the devastating cultural losses Iraq has suffered over its fractious history.

When you enter the Dunlop, which is located in a library itself, you’re met by a 40-foot white bookshelf running south-to-north. It might take you a moment to realize, but installed on the five-tiered shelf are hardcover books with white jackets. There’s 1000 in total, spaced a few centimetres apart, and embossed on the spines is the exhibition title 168.01 where the Dewey Decimal System number usually goes.

On a whim, I looked up 168 in the Dewey System. It covers books on the subject “Argument And Persuasion”. That fits nicely with the exhibition’s theme, although it’s somewhat serendipitous, as the original source of the number was the 13th century Iraqi legend.

It struck me also that the books are arranged in such a way that were they to be opened, they would reveal their contents to someone standing on the east side of the shelf. Simple logistics may have dictated the orientation, but it did make me wonder if maybe it was a nod by Bilal to his homeland, which lies many thousands of kilometres east of Regina.

That might be a stretch. But it is consistent with Bilal’s underlying purpose in presenting 168.01 — which is to help restock the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Art Library. Like Bayt al-Hikma centuries earlier, it was looted and destroyed during the U.S. led invasion to depose dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Over 70,000 books were lost, and the college has compiled a wish-list of texts it would like to have for its collection. The list can be found on Amazon, and if you purchase a book and forward it to Bilal either directly or through the Dunlop, it will be sent on to Baghdad. In return, you’ll receive one of Bilal’s white books from the show when it closes on June 25.

If you need a reminder of the damage Baghdad suffered during the Iraq War, Bilal provides that through 10 archival inkjet photographs hung on the gallery walls. Styled as photojournalism, The Ashes Series, at first glance, appears authentic. But it soon becomes obvious the works are miniature reconstructions of press images documenting the war.

Typically, the photos have sharp foreground focus and fuzzy background, which messes with our perception of the devastation depicted. Scenes include a golden chandelier hanging above a debris-strewn room with a hole smashed in the ceiling above, and a piano buried in rubble so that only its black-and-white keyboard is visible. Bilal has also applied 21 grams of ashes to every photograph, which gives them a seductive texture that generates a hyper-real 3-D effect.

“Market”, “Hospital”, “Dark Palace” and “Saddam’s Bedroom” are some of the other titles/subjects in the series. And they offer a poignant counterpoint to the white books in the middle of the gallery. Right now they’re ghosts, waiting to be turned into real books to be donated to Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts.

What an extraordinary undertaking! One that stands in stark contrast to the Wall government’s massively ill-conceived budget plan. True, the Saskatchewan Party didn’t drop actual bombs on libraries. But they did deliver a financial bomb.

Fortunately, thanks to tens of thousands of Saskatchewan citizens who quickly mobilized to protest the cuts, the bomb turned out to be a dud.

Too bad all bombs weren’t like that. ❧