The Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad exhibition focuses on female artists and architects who have contributed to the Iraqi capital city’s cultural landscape. There are two unique sculptures cum installations in white: one shows leading male architects outside an architectural model of a gymnasium designed by Le Corbusier and originally named after Saddam Hussein. The second reproduces the same model but this time the figures are female architects, writes Karen Dabrowski
Kuwait-born artist Ala Younis who is based in Amman, produced the first installation for the 2015 Venice Biennale. Her follow-up work, completed in 2018 challenges, the male dominance of Baghdad’s architecture, politics and modern history and shows female architects, artists and other women, standing proud and confident, who contributed to the development of Iraq and its modern monuments. Both installations are being displayed together for the first time.
“The work is a re-construction of history beyond the dominant narratives. It retells stories that may have been overlooked or marginalised. With each new exhibition of these works, the visitors bring in their stories. I believe it is prompting a living archive,” Younis said.
Around the model, she has constructed a timeline going back to the 1950s that charts decades of Iraqi history, conflicts and regime changes. Through the use of archival material: photographs, architectural drawings and letters she illustrates the impact of politics on architecture.
“With every new regime there was a new master plan for Baghdad and its monuments. They were coming up and down and changing names depending on the president,” Younis explained. In 1981 the famous Iraqi architect Rifat Chadiriji took a photo of himself in the rubble of the monument to the unknown soldier which was demolished on the orders of Saddam Hussein. In 1963 after the overthrow of Abdel Karim Kassem, the new regime installed ladders on Faek Hassan’s mural and painted the doves black.
The timeline also traces the history of the construction of the gymnasium ending with 2006 when the US army left the and site and mentions that in 2014 a crowd held a meeting at the gymnasium as part of a campaign for parliamentary elections.The time-line is punctuated by two-dimensional framed copies of the female figures pictured against a red background, whose untold stories are brought to life:
- Balkis Sharara, the wife of the famous Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji who in 1979 carried copies of his work into and out of Abu Ghraib prison allowing him to author his seminal books while in prison. Sharara wrote her own book, whose cover is displayed, about her life when her husband was in prison.
- Artist Nuha al-Radi whose diaries of 1990/2 describe the dynamics in the lives of Baghdad’s people beyond the news coverage;
- Fahreinissa Zeid, an artist, (most recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Tate Modern) and the wife of the Iraqi ambassador in London when Le Corbusier received a telegram confirming the approval of his first design proposal for Baghdad;
- Zaha Hadid, one of Iraq’s most famous modern architects whose pioneering vision redefined architecture for the 21st century and captured imaginations across the globe;
- Ellen Jawdat, who designed the headquarters and orphanage spaces of the Red Crescent society in Baghdad in 1949;
- Nazek Al-Malakia whose 1953 essay Women Between the extremes of Passivity and Choice challenged the patriarchal regime in Iraq;
- Engineer Azhar Al Kaisi who was one of the newly appointed directors in the ministry of transport in 1982.
In contrast the male architects pictured on another wall of the gallery are presented in muted, charcoal tones.
The inspiration for the exhibition came from came Younis’ discovery of a set of 35mm slides taken by Rifat Chadirji in 1982 which included photographs of the gymnasium. “It somehow seemed to symbolise my training as an architect, at the University of Jordan in the mid-1990s,” Younis said. “Both the slides and my training presented me with experiences that related to Rifat Chadirji, Le Corbusier and Saddam Hussein. These slides initiated my research through six decades of Baghdad’s history – covering military interventions, heads of state, master plans, modern art, international and local architects and the monuments that appeared and disappeared,” Younis said.
Commenting on the exhibition curator Christine Takengny said: “Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad engages us to reflect on how we commemorate and represent historical monuments and people and to think about who is rendered invisible or unacknowledged by history and present culture. Youni’s archival display invites us to slow down and make our own connection between the different layers of her research. Her tribute to the female protagonists that played an important role in Baghdad’s architecture, politics and history is a timely contribution to the discussion about persisting gender-inequalities and misrepresentations that woman around the world continue to face today. At the same time Youni’s multi media installations highlight a period of empowerment and emancipation in Iraq’s history that many of us might not be familiar with.”
Artist, writer and curator Ala Younis holds a B.Sc. in Architecture from the University of Jordan and a MRes in Visual Cultures from Goldsmith College. She is on the advisory board of Berlinale’s Forum Expanded and co-founder of Kayf ta, a non profit publishing initiative that has published seven ‘how to’ books since its foundation in 2012. She is planning to turn the research for exhibitions on the plan for greater Bagdad into a book. Younis has held a number of solo exhibitions and participated in group shows including an exhibition at the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin (2017) the New Museum, New York (2014) and the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha (2012).
Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad at the Delfina Foundation, London, until April 14th.