Iraq in Venice Interview with Halim Al Karim

Alan Yetob’s interesting documentary on the build up and preparations for the Iraq Pavillion can be viewed here :
I met Halim Al Karim at the XVA GALLERY at the Dubai Art Fair in 2010 and was interested to know more about his background and his art. I am delighted he has been chosen to represent Iraq in it’s first appearance in Venice.

Interview with Halim Al Karim at Bastakiya Art Fair Dubai 2010

C:What was your first contact with art?

Halim: My first contact with art was in the Museum in Iraq. The most vivid memory is of  the small figurines of the Goddesses. My uncle was director of the Museum so I was able to spend a lot of time there which later inspired me to study art in Iraq. I left Iraq in 1991.

C:Can you explain the reasons and intentions behind ‘The Goddess Doll’?

Halim: The Title for the sculpture in this courtyard, is a reference to those  small figurines I loved and experienced in my childhood and liked to share my dreams with. Now that I am many years older I have to make my own doll. I want for this sculpture to be a symbolic reminder for  people to remember their own childhood dreams and the innocence we are all born with.

C: I felt a great loss  when I heard that the Museum of Iraq had been looted. It housed the earliest know histories that shaped ideas and concepts for East and West.

Halim: It is where history started. Just imagine if some fanatic was to wipe out all of Beethoven’s music in the western parts of the world.  I think it is just too easy for fanatics to be in charge politically today. I think that this is one of he most important issues that need to be discussed today.  It is even more important than the blood sheet of Iraq. We must not forget what has happened in the past.  I would like to say to the persons who gave the order to protect the oil ministry in Iraq how important it would have been that they should have given the order to protect the museum and our joint history. Our grandchildren and the friends of our grandchildren world wide will want to know what happened and request truth.

C: Do you think you will go back to Iraq?

Halim: Yes, of course I am preparing to go back now.

Halim points at a work of his hanging in the courtyard of XVA Gallery.  It is a neon light in calligraphic Arabic on a black background, and he tells me it reads ‘Taboo’. A fine transparent veil covers the whole piece.

C: Which kind of taboo are you addressing here?

There are two aspects indicating two identities  to this work. My local identity is referenced to in the text that is in Arabic and also in the material I use which is the veil. Symbols of my origins are covering the neon light sign.  When you first approach the piece from the side you only see the black surface, only later does the inscription ‘haram’ appear.  What I am trying to express with this piece is, that taboo’s are built up over time, like memory and  accumulate in and around you layer after layer in a gradual process until it becomes part of you and you can no longer detach from them. The fact that my personality was shaped by my origins and my being is influenced by the environment I live in today, which adds up to make for a complex identity. Social issues also do come into play because taboo’s differ from region to region and take shape depending on which region I am living and working in. In the west there also exist taboos and subjects that are not being talked about.

I have heard that political issues concerning the Holocaust of the Second World War are still sensitive issues. In the 21st century if we cannot discuss the atrocities that are going on now how can we learn from our history? We cannot  protect ourselves from yet another Holocaust that has already happened in Iraq.

May be we could have avoided this invasion and saved lives and saved our ancient culture, had there been more open discussions. Let’s not make the same mistake again; we have to discuss why this war happened again.

My show in the other room, ‘Photographic Archives, Urban Witness Series’ with emphasis on the eyes is all about this issue. It is about eyes seeing what is really going on. I feel that the western art critic’s avoid the real concept behind that work. It may be because they want to protect their position and jobs in the media. Sometimes I feel that in some ways we are more free in the East than people are today in the West especially here in Dubai.

C:Is Dubai a neutral ground?

Halim: I am not a politician I am an artist and we can express ourselves through art. I feel there is more freedom to discuss issues here in Dubai than in the United States.

C: Even though there is freedom of speech?

Halim: This freedom of speech is tainted by deception and manipulation by the media. The blame normally falls on the Islam. Politicians will manipulate general opinion with the tools of the media.

C: Do artists interact and share a common goal here?

Harim: I think that artists all have their individual take on the situation. Even though we share the same issues and environments each artist talks in their own language. One of my main issues in my work is focusing on unresolved issues and politics that can so often be deceptive.

We have many taboos in the Middle East and what is not acceptable is clear, but in the West the boundaries are ambiguous. Inevitably I get caught up in political issues but I don’t want to get caught up ‘in the machine.’ I protect myself with my work; I protect myself with this doll and the reminder of the pure truth and innocence beneath the layers of acquired states off being.

C: Do you think art can change political climates?

Harim: Yes, I do think it can have an influence but we need different artists. We need courageous artists, not followers of the art market. True artists who fight the political climate. With art you can raise peoples awareness and elevate society.

C: What do you think about censor ship within art in the Middle East today?

Harim: I don’t think it is unusual to have a sensor on pornography. We can protect our heritage and our cultural being. There is no need for pornography, please keep it in your society. I don’t mean this in an offensive way, but it is not necessary. I prefer each society to keep its own culture. If we all globalise we will live in a mixture that has no longer any taste or smell. If we hold on to our individual cultures it will make for a far richer world experience.


Christina Eberhart©



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