With U.S President Barack Obama set to announce the end of his nation's combat operations in Iraq in a televised address this evening, the Middle Eastern country's long history of turmoil and its recent, slow progress toward peace will once again receive major media attention. However, if American-born, Italy-based curator Mary Angela Schroth gets her way, it will be on the international stage again in the near future for a much more positive reason. Along with a team of patrons, artists, and curators, she is working to create a national pavilion for the nation at the 54th Venice Biennale, which opens next June. It has not participated in the biannual event since 1976.
Schroth's proposed exhibition, titled "Acqua Ferita," features six Iraqi-born artists — Adel Abidin, Halim Al Karim, Ahmed Al Soudani, Ali Assaf, Azad Nanakeli, and Walid Siti — providing interpretations on the theme of water. Assaf serves as the pavilion’s commissioner, with Italian curator Vittorio Urbani as an adjunct commissioner. Schroth is its official curator. If completed, the pavilion would be realized under the auspices of Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources and its Ministry of Culture, as well as the country’s embassy in Italy and its representation to United Nations agencies in Rome.
In a telephone interview, Schroth stressed to ARTINFO that she aims to create an official pavilion, recognized by the Biennale and the Iraqi government — insofar as that is possible. Schroth has been working with Iraqi embassies in Italy. In a letter, dated June 15, 2010, that is attached to the proposal for the project, from Iraqi ambassador to Rome Hassan Janabi to Biennale director Paolo Baratta requesting official participation for Iraq, Janabi writes that "Iraq has been absent from the Biennale for many years due to the various political upheavals in the country, making an Iraq participation extremely difficult. Our country wishes to establish new ties with the world at large and especially in culture. For this reason, it is important for our country to take part in Venice for its Biennale in 2011, with the creation of a Pavilion dedicated to their work." Also attached is Baratta’s leter of July 2, accepting Iraq’s participation.
"It’s very important right now for Iraq to have this pavilion," said Schroth. "The country has been through hell for the last 30 years, but it has produced amazing artists. We want to bring out the best of the best to show that Iraq is culturally and intellectually equal with any other country. And we want to try to bring Iraq back to normalcy. That process can start with projects like this one in Venice. That may be idealistic, but you have to start somewhere."
The last time Iraq had an officially recognized presentation at the Biennale was in 1976 when Saddam Hussein was in power, Schroth points out in her proposal. Many of the country’s artists and intellectuals have left the country in the tumultuous intervening decades, and all six artists selected for the 2011 exhibition are Iraqi-born, but based outside of the country. Video artist Adel Abidin is based in Helsinki; mixed media artist Ali Assaf in Rome; photographer Halim Al Karim in Denver; video artist Azad Nanakeli in Florence; and mixed media artist Walid Siti in the U.K. Ahmed Al Soudani, the sole painter in the group and the most commercially successful of all the artists (he is now represented by powerhouse Haunch of Venison gallery), is based in New York.
Planning for the pavilion was first spearheaded by Ali Assaf, who formed a group with Walid Siti in London. They came to Schroth looking for someone to help them work with Italian officials and the various embassies that would need to be involved. The Virginia-born Schroth was well-positioned for such a task, having a long history of bringing the world’s artists to Italy. Twenty-five years ago, she became director of Rome’s Sala Uno, one of the city’s first contemporary art venues. Long before Rome’s contemporary art scene heated up — with the opening of the Macro contemporary art museum in the 1990s, then the arrival two years ago of Gagosian Gallery and the recent completion of Zaha Hadids building for the Maxxi modern and contemporary art museum — Schroth was putting on exhibitions of important Russian, Chinese, and South African artists around the city. She hasn’t shied away from challenging projects. Before arriving at Sala Uno, Schroth co-organized offbeat art events in Rome, like "Latrina," an exhibition that took place in an abandoned public bathroom and featured a transsexual performance artist called Dominot performing in one of the stalls.
She has also worked in various capacities for the Venice Biennale, including, under the aegis of Sala Uno, co-producing the first-ever South Africa pavilion, in 1993. (The exhibition traveled to Sala Uno after the end of its run in Venice.) "I know how to organize things and get official patronage," Schroth said. "And how to get a space."
Schroth was not yet ready to reveal the location she is considering, but she said that it's an "exciting, rough, unusual" venue that was used during the 2009 Venice Biennale for a satellite project, not an official pavilion. However, the official pavilion will only be possible if Schroth can raise at least $250,000, a small sum compared to the budgets of countries like the United States and France, which often spend around a million dollars each to fund their respective pavilions.
To help raise money, Schroth said that she has enlisted Istanbul-based Iraqi investment banker and art collector Shwan Taha, whose wife, Turkish journalist Ipek Cem Taha, hosts the popular Turkish television show "Global Leaders." Schwan Taha has agreed to chair a fundraising "Patrons Committee" for the pavilion. The initial funding from him, she said, will be enough to secure the venue for the pavilion. She has also formed a subcommittee headed up by Dubai–based Iraqi collector Reem Kubba, who is working to bring in other patrons in the UAE. Schroth said that she hopes these efforts will raise between $20,000 and $50,000, and that other foundations will supply the remainder of the needed money. There has also been talk, she said, of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chipping in money toward the efforts of artists that are U.S. residents. "We already have a big hunk of money," Schroth said. "And we still have about a year to go. I think we’ll be okay."
Explaining her success with Sala Uno to the Wall Street Journal two years ago, Schroth commented, "We’ve… survived because personally I’ve put a huge amount of energy in managing the space. I spend about 50 percent of my time on fundraising and the rest on curating. Because I’m an American, I really don’t have the same limits as far as taking chances. I’m not afraid to ask for the collaboration we need."
If she can bring that same can-do spirit to the Venice project, the Iraq Pavilion just may happen.