Rijin Sahakian

Sada was founded nearly five years ago to support young, college-level art students in Baghdad. This generation of artists is living in a city that has been, and continues to be, an epicenter for international violence through division of its citizenry and destruction of infrastructure by the Iraqi government, the United States, and their allies. With the ravaging of the city’s arts and education systems, it was Sada’s aim simply to connect artists to resources. We did this through online lectures with Arabic-speaking artists and professors, intensive workshops, one-on-one advisement, advocacy, and small production and exhibition grants.

Sada will be suspending its work as a formal project. Traveling to Iraq has become too dangerous, proper oversight has become increasingly difficult and obtaining the kind of security needed for Sada’s activities would require working with members of the government and their supporters. This would be anathema to our mission considering the reality of corruption and context of warmongering. Those who are responsible for and profit from a country’s undoing also sponsor, applaud and exhibit works produced from the wretched conditions they themselves have helped sow. These endeavors are supported by an array of curators, arts writers, and financial and public relations systems that comprise the arts industrial complex.

Unfortunately, collaborating with the very sources that have caused or benefitted from crisis is far too common in Iraq and other areas in the region. As new exhibitions and acquisitions are announced, we must look at who is funding and supporting work, for whom, and for what aim. 

There is a dangerous amount of funding for local and international Middle Eastern art shows, publications and initiatives funded through monies accumulated via arms sales, violence, and corrupt politics - administered to use the work of artists to further collections and social standing. With U.S. funding, there are somewhat clear ways to determine if funds are coming from the government or an independent art-funding entity. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, for example, offers some funds for arts and culture. The largest US embassy in the world, which costs billions of dollars to build and maintain, is located in the Green Zone. A heavily protected enclave for embassy workers and Iraqi politicians, the Green Zone is off-limits to regular Iraqi citizens and immune from the violence that permeates their day-to-day lives. One can be certain that these funds are tied to US policy in Iraq. There is a similarly direct connection in funding for cultural projects and foreign and domestic policy when it comes from countries governed by ruling families and/or authoritarian regimes.

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Louvre and Zayed National Museum all fall under the Abu Dhabi Authority for Tourism and Culture, as do nearly all arts and cultural development programs in Abu Dhabi. The Authority is directly backed and overseen by the Executive Council of Abu Dhabi and chaired by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The Sheikh, who is crown prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, hired Erik Prince, head of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater to put together a secret, American-led mercenary army for the United Arab Emirates, contracted at more than half a billion dollars to quell any internal uprisings by citizens or laborers, amongst other potential “threats.” The deal was made after Blackwater faced legal issues in the United States stemming from the massacre at Baghdad’s Nisour Square, in which seventeen unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed. 

Nearly all art institutions and programs in Qatar, including the Museum of Islamic Art, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival are backed and overseen by the Qatar Museums Authority (QM). The QM is chaired by the former Emir of Qatar’s daughter, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, often noted as the most powerful art collector in the world, holding purchasing power from the Qatari government of up to $1 billion a year. The late Emir also funded the Al Udeid air force base, one of the main air force bases from which US war efforts in the Middle East have been deployed (in addition to the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait). Qatar famously built the billion dollar air force base expressly for use by the United States for the Iraqi invasion following the signing of the US-Qatar co-defense agreement, which was renewed in 2013 with an arms purchase of $11 billion. The base continues to serve as US Central Command for all operations and strikes in the Middle East and Afghanistan. These operations and strikes, in service of the “War on Terror,” have caused the death of one million Iraqis alone, and more than 1.3 million when deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan are included. The QM notes that part of its purpose is to “create the conditions for creativity and cultivating new talent, inspiring the next generation of cultural producers.”  Whose generation of “cultural producers” is being cultivated by these conditions, and at whose expense? These few examples are in addition to the repressive policies used against these monarchies' own citizens and the abhorrent treatment of their significant servant and migrant labor populations.

These are the same authoritarian governments that claim to hold humanistic values by taking a lead in supporting the arts and building new cultural centers, whilst simultaneously supporting the eradication of those already in existence. The same is true for the vast majority of politicians and their beneficiaries in Iraq and Syria who participate in the destruction of their own countries. In effect, they use art to deflect their involvement in the devastation of societies by commissioning artists or collecting works—at times from the same places they have taken part in destroying for their benefit and profit. 

Recently, the new Iraq pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale was announced with participation by the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. The Iraq pavilion is made possible in part through the security apparatus and connections of Ahmad Chalabi, whose daughter is head of the pavilion’s organizing Ruya Foundation. One of the most divisive politicians in Iraq, Chalabi remains wanted in Jordan after a massive bank fraud conviction. He is equally well-known for being paid handsomely by the C.I.A. and other US government agencies in the years leading up for the false information he provided to the Bush administration to support the invasion of Iraq. Recognized for his political dissent and persecution in China, one wonders if Wei Wei is aware of this.

Much of the developing Middle East art market, marked by fanfare around national pavilions, Biennales, presence at significant US institutions, and the building of new and brand-name museums, is filled with artists who have the privilege of having gone to art school abroad, the mobility of dual passports, or who no longer live in the countries they are representing as “the Middle East.” Certainly, many artists and citizens have left their home countries to flee violence, pursue higher education unavailable in their home country, or simply to choose a different kind of life. There is no fault in this. At the same time, however, local artists, even if selected for exhibitions, have little in the way of resources to continue or expand their work. Hardly a dent in the spectacular funding around this new market--by patrons, by governmental and arts institutions alike--has gone to any kind of arts education or grants for artists living in the Middle East (outside of the Gulf).

Funding is spent on accumulating works, luxury branding, and positioning artists to take part in the global art market instead of building educational infrastructures to support future generations of artists. In this way, ordinary citizens are pushed further and further away from opportunities to independently produce work about the cities they inhabit and the experiences they are living. At other times, local artists are taken advantage of by curators and art collectors seeking notoriety or profit from topical war-torn sites. Considering the “promise” that taking part in an international exhibition or sale might offer an artist with few alternative means left to exhibit or produce work, this is a difficult opportunity to turn down. This is true even when it is offered by those who have directly profited from their country’s undoing or simply have no long term interest in their work. This intrinsically co-opts artists by limiting potential criticality while acting to direct emerging narratives.

I point this out neither to blame artists nor denigrate the work being exhibited but to bring to light an issue swept under the rug in many of the conversations, symposia, meetings, and discourse in general on art in the Middle East. Fundamentally, if only privileged artists (whether by access to outside resources or willingness to work with highly compromised funding sources/institutions) are provided platforms to grow and advance their work, theirs will be the only truths and experiences more widely realized and circulated. This does not mean that any artist living in Damascus or Baghdad should be plucked for exhibitions. Rather, artists in these  rapidly expanding areas of strife should be afforded greater opportunity for educational and artistic growth. Moreover, no citizen can enjoy full possibilities for growth when living under the siege of warfare, and no amount of support for the arts can make up for this. 

This letter is meant to highlight the issues we have faced and must articulate as Sada ends this iteration of our work. We must transition to avoid compromising our students, staff, and programs. As conditions in Iraq worsen yet again, we refuse to put students at risk or collaborate with those who have created the horrific conditions under which artists and citizens live. This does not mean that our work will end, however. We are energized by those who have supported, grown, and taken part in our activities over the past four years. We remain committed to exploring new strategies that address the issues raised, as well as to empowering individual artists through discourse and collective work.

It is a grave mistake to ignore the policies and outcomes of what has taken place in Iraq, which include: new oil pipelines and re-allocation of water resources; unregulated global privatization of security, policing, and imprisonment; the building of militarized cities within cities for control and surveillance of ordinary citizens; record breaking international arms deals accompanied by a historic refugee and humanitarian crisis. We know who is witnessing the atrocities taking place, but who is making them visible? This is certainly not only an issue in Iraq but in many areas where lack of access to, and strategic suppression (coupled with subjective “elevation”) of, the arts and intellectual activity is employed. What Iraqis, Syrians, and an increasing number of citizens in the region face today is no less than genocide and cultural cleansing, and it is time that the severity of this situation and its circumstances is acknowledged. 

Sada’s intention was never to re-create an art “scene” or “market” in Baghdad, nor to privilege nationalist endeavors, which rely on the pretense of loyalty to artificial boundaries, armies and the notion that histories belong solely to particular territories or peoples. History is, in fact, shared. If we, as a community of artists, educators and citizens of the world hope to understand what is taking place in our education systems, governments and the mechanics of the arts and accessibility, then we must take this global site into consideration and look at what our information--or lack thereof--says not simply about Iraq but ourselves and the systems we take part in every day.

Thank you for your patience, and to so many for your ongoing support.

Rijin Sahakian, 
Founder, Sada