In 2003, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost their entire library due to looters who set fire to the collection during the invasion of Iraq. In 1258, the library of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikma, was thrown into the Tigris River by soldiers during a Mongol siege and, according to legend, bled ink into the river for seven days, or 168 hours. For artist Wafaa Bilal, 168:01 refers to the first moment when grief is transformed into a call to action, the beginning of a struggle to move forward from the ashes of ruin. Visitors to Bilal’s installation, a library of empty white books, encounter a memorial of loss whose austere palette has been transformed into a platform for change. Aimed at restoring the lost archive of the College, 168:01 positions visitors as potential participants. Each visitor who donates a book to the exhibition, from a list compiled by faculty and students, receives a white book in return, and at the end of the exhibition, all donated books will be shipped to the College.
Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal, an Associate Arts Professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is known internationally for his on-line performative and interactive works provoking dialogue about international politics and internal dynamics. For his 2007 installation, Domestic Tension, Bilal spent a month in a Chicago gallery with a paintball gun that people could shoot at him over the Internet. The Chicago Tribune called it “one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time” and named him 2008 Artist of the Year. Bilal’s work is constantly informed by the experience of fleeing his homeland and existing simultaneously in two worlds – his home in the “comfort zone” of the U.S. and his consciousness of the “conflict zone” in Iraq. Using his own body as a medium, Bilal continued to challenge our comfort zone with projects like 3rdi and …and Counting. Bilal’s most recent body of work, Canto III, premiered in a solo booth at the New York Armory Show in 2015 and went on to be shown in the 2015 Venice Biennale.
In 2008 City Lights published “Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun,” about Bilal’s life and the Domestic Tension project. He holds a BFA from the University of New Mexico and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL; MATHAF: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar; amongst others.
Photos by Frank Piccolo