A group of female figures are scattered in front of an intriguing architectural maquette, a building with circling staircases and ramp, resembling the inside of a twisting seashell. Scale-wise, these women appear as giants, nearly as tall, in places, as the building itself, a sort of sea of mini titans. This has a sort of poetic resonance, given the idea behind Kuwaiti-born artist Ala Younis’s latest project, Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad, which brings to light the many (often forgotten or unknown) female entities who played a role in the modernisation, construction and image of the Iraqi capital.
On show across two spaces – London’s Delfina Foundation (1 February–24 March 2018), and Art Jameel at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai (1 March–14 April 2018), the work grew out of Younis’s original investigative project, Plan for Greater Baghdad, which was displayed as part of Okwui Enwezor’s All The World’s Futures at the 2015 Venice Biennale. In it, Younis explored the complex history of the Saddam Hussein Gymnasium: originally conceived by Le Corbusier in the 1950s, it would only finally be fully completed after his death. Through this work, Younis explored the ways in which architecture and monuments act as expressions of shifting political powers. Although Younis herself has not been to Baghdad, “Plan for Greater Baghdad awakens hazy remains from my architectural training in the aftermath of the Gulf War,” she explains, “of the strong legacy of modern Iraqi art, the interest in, or survival of, unverified versions of facts in narratives and an imaginary life in a city promised to be inaccessible.”
And so, in its new iteration, Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad (identical in its two exhibition configurations, apart from an additional collection of books, articles and publications for its Dubai iteration that seeks to link the project to the Jameel Arts Centre’s own library, and its subsequent focus on arts histories of the UAE and GCC), Younis takes as her starting point female protagonists instead of the male ones explored in the earlier work.
“Plan for Greater Baghdad, the work’s title, offers a number of alternative readings as ‘plan’ can be dually translated in Arabic as both ‘mokhatat’ or ‘scheme’ and ‘khotta’ or ‘plot’,” explains Younis. “To translate the word as ‘scheme’ is to, perhaps, focus on masterplans and maps that are contingent on political dominance manifested upon the city through art and architecture; ‘plot’, meanwhile, suggests the treatment of Baghdad as one that is itself affecting these projects. This second translation could suggest a feminist articulation of the history in which Baghdad and her (female) architects purposely accommodate, adapt or reconfigure in response to changes in its plans.”
Where the first work presented viewers with a maquette of the gymnasium, this feminist version does too, but this time takes us inside it, via a cross section. Just as here we are allowed to peer inside the structure, so too the selection of women she has rendered in 3D printed sculptures, as well as the research that is on display to accompany them, hints at the way in which we are allowed finally to ‘look inside’ the true history of all of these women who made important contributions alongside those of the male protagonists whose roles have gone down far more documented in history.
The work, then, is based on found material, on “fragments of historical representation,” explains Younis, “and in these representations, elements of fact and fiction both exist.” From books authored in Abu Ghraib prison, to across the Middle East (Beirut, Baghdad, Amman, Dubai) through Paris, Athens, London, Boston, Toronto, New Zealand and more, Younis gathered “Pages, many. Footage. Lists. Memories. Museums. Permissions. Others….these fragments could be, among many things, a rendering of a territory, a historical event, or the narrative plot of a film. Within these fragments lay possible deviations from stable narratives.”
As such, the work is neither a direct historical re-enactment, nor is it a complete fiction. The result is figures including the instantly recognisable Zaha Hadid, Balkis Sharara (wife of architect, writer and activist Rifat Chadirji, depicted in the first work), artist Nuha Al-Radi (whose diaries from the early 90s reveal to us the realities of life in Baghdad outside of the news camera), artist Fahrelnissa Zeid (wife of the Iraqi Ambassador in London during the time Le Corbusier received approval of his project), and poet Iman Mersal. “I was inspired by a story I had been told by Mersal, of her solidarity visit to Baghdad under siege,” says Younis. “Unaware of the intentions of their host, Iman and her group of fellow visitors were escorted to meet Saddam Hussein while there were in Baghdad in 1993; there he gave a strong liberal feminist speech.”
The potential narratives are numerous, some more obviously direct (such as that of Sharara), while others for what the traces they have left behind signify. For example, the figure of an unknown woman, taken from a photograph of her dancing at New Year’s celebrations at the gymnasium in 1990. “I was interested in her response to the presence of the camera that was broadcasting the concert,” says Younis, “and the way this conscious performance influenced others to become conscious of the camera which in turn carried to us the documentation of that concert and the dominant politics of its time.”
It is stories such as this that show the gaps in history and places in which fact and fiction can meld and collide within the narratives we are passed down. So much historical ‘fact’ is, after all, written by the victors. How much of what we unearth is true? “This is a work of art, so fiction is possible,” says Younis. “I merged some elements together, but I have not made up or altered any statements, they were all found statements, and these are in themselves products of their own makers, who were not always victors."
This is certainly not an immediately easy show, but like all those based on research and archival material, requires effort on behalf of the viewer to read, digest and join the dots. “It is up to the viewers to decide how much they want to engage with or dive in the work,” explains Younis. “I put the text of the timeline online and also write often on the project to explain further what constituted or instituted from it beyond what the actual plates. It is an attempt to have it accessible beyond the exhibition space.”
All images courtesy: Ala Younis, Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad exhibition installation view, 2018.
Photo Tim Bowditch. Courtesy Delfina Foundation and Art Jameel