(TORONTO, ON) – What defines a people’s culture? Is it a summary of historical events, victories, and military achievements? Could it be that culture is defined by reference to monuments erected to commemorate individuals and events?
Is culture a manifestation of a people’s political experiences? What about a people’s knowledge? How is a people’s culture reflected or discovered? Might the culture be revealed through its intellectual and artistic achievements in architecture, literature, and the arts in general?
Is this what culture is?
These and other questions are raised when visiting an interesting and informative exhibit at the architecturally stunning Aga Khan Museum. From Baghdad to Timbuktu: Libraries Rising from the Ashes is the thought-provoking exhibit which shines a light on the destruction of books in Iraq in 2003 and the related educational and cultural implications.
The installation focuses on reconstructing the lost book collection thereby helping to foster and rebuild post-war cultural institutions.
The installation is the brain child of artist and educator Wafaa Bilal with whom we met at the museum. Bilal grew up in Iraq and currently lives and works as an artist and associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Forced to flee his home country, Bilal became known internationally for his online performance and interactive works which seek to stimulate both international and internal political dialogue. In 2008, a book about Bilal’s life and work was published under the title Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life, and Resistance Under the Gun.
Bilal’s most recent body of work, Canto III, premiered at the New York Armory Show in 2015 and went on to be shown the same year at the Venice Biennale; quite an honor. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.
He holds a BFA from the University of New Mexico and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Iraq has a long history of cultural deconstruction going back to the Mongol invasion in the 13th Century and the destruction of the Bandag House of Wisdom Library. Legend has it that the books were tossed into the Tigris River to create a bridge for the army to cross, causing the books to bleed into the river for seven days, or 168 hours, at which point the books were drained of knowledge.
Drawing inspiration from the 13th century legend, Bilal’s installation takes us back to the 2003 war and the destruction and looting of over 70,000 books at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad; the entire library.
The 168:01 (one hundred and sixty eight hours and one second) installation mourns the loss of the library. By presenting close to 1,000 books containing empty white pages set out in rows of shelves, visitors to the installation become participants, emotionally experiencing the loss, and linking directly to the students and faculty of the college.
According to the artist, the installation also reflects the exact moment in time when grief is transformed into a call for action to help rebuild the library and consequently supporting the artistic, educational, and cultural renewal of Iraq, one book at a time.
You may ask, “Why re-build a book library in the age of digital communications?” Bilal explained that the physical presence of a book is a meditative thing. The touch and feel, the turning of pages, put him in a relaxed state, causing him to lose himself in the stories depicted in the book.
Countless people would agree with this passionate assessment of the materially desirable appeal of books. There is something palpable about books, but also something metaphysical in the experience of holding and reading a book.
Equally important, explained Bilal, is the limited ability of the Iraqi people to access the internet. In many countries the internet is not readily available, whether it be due to economics, general connectivity issues, or other reasons. Many Iraqis do not have access to the internet and their source of education and knowledge must therefore continue to come from printed books.
This might well be the precise significance of the installation and the related call to action to help rebuild the lost fine art library, thereby continuing to enhance the knowledge and appreciation of culture and the fine arts in future generations.
Help To Rebuild
From Baghdad to Timbuktu is at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto from July 14 through to August 19. For more information on how you can help to rebuild the lost book collection visit the AKM website.
The Aga Khan Experience
When visiting the breathtaking Aga Khan Museum take some time to visit the beautiful and delightfully delicious Diwan restaurant and the stunningly curated Gift shop which stimulates the senses in the most beautiful way. You will definitely be delighted by the experience.