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Interview: Wafaa Bilal

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The Iraqi political artist has reached global audiences with his thought provoking work, but it hasn’t come easy for the NYU professor. From being locked in a room for 30 days while being shot with paintballs by Internet users, experiencing the water boarding technique first hand and enduring an arduous 24-hour tattoo session to represent the casualties in the Iraq war, including his own brother - pain is a platform that has been covered extensively by Wafaa Bilal.

Wafaa BilalHis project, the 3rd Eye has received awe from the global media. It involves the artist surgically implanting a camera in the back of his head for a year and relaying a still image every minute to the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. Many wonder why on earth he would involve himself with such a painful procedure, performed not by a doctor but by a tattoo and piercing specialist.

Growing up under Saddam’s regime has undoubtedly inspired Wafaa’s engaging and breathtaking work.

“I remember in 1991 leaving my home town after being bombarded by Saddam's regime, I saw the rising smoke of the city and I wished I could have captured some of these images. If I had the apparatus to capture the city the pictures would have been very subjective. From that idea I started to think about how the photographer uses that subjectivity when taking images."

“I started thinking of the project the 3rd Eye and decided it needed to be part of my body for it to become part of the apparatus, to lose some of the subjectivity but not all of it because that would be impossible, since by choice the camera was placed in the back of my head."

“It is extremely painful, not only did I endure the operation under local anaesthesia but also you have to take care of it, half of the skin on the back of my head is now lifted where the magnetic plate is,” explains the artist.

Wafaa started to take an interest in art from an early age, but was hindered from pursuing his passion by Saddam’s regime.

“At the age of seven I started drawing, later on I graduated from high school and was denied entry to an art course because of my family’s stance against the regime.”

The artist’s upbringing was hard under the rule of the Saddam.

“It was horrible, definitely no freedom, as kids we were not even allowed to talk to our siblings, we were afraid of expressing ourselves. There were many incidents where siblings reported each other to the government.”

The artist showed great courage when he opposed the regime and rejected to fight in the war with Kuwait, but of course this would seal a grim fate for Wafaa if he were to stay in his home country.

“It was in college when army officers came to ask students to fight in the war. I had a bad relationship with one of the teachers and he picked on me to be the first one to volunteer I refused and from then on I knew that there was no way I could stay in Iraq. I was on the run. I got to Kuwait where I was arrested because I was mistaken for being part of Saddam’s regime, but luckily I was released and after 40 days on the border I was sent to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, where I stayed for two years. This is how much freedom means to me, I didn’t accept the status quo and it broke my heart to see the use of fear and the lack of freedom in the Bush regime.”

The professor has also hooked himself up with GPS so anyone can view his location via the Internet – a direct dig at surveillance in our society.

“Unfortunately the act of 9/11 has been negatively used by the government to confiscate more and more freedom. Part of the 3rd Eye is to comment on how much we are watched. I read a statistic that 3 agents are watching every Middle Eastern man in the United States, that’s a huge number and such a waste of resources.”

The terrifying experience has undoubtedly shaped the artist into crafting political pieces of art. Wafaa hadn’t been back to Iraq until 2009, the term homesickness takes on a new meaning.

“It was the strangest trip that I have ever took, when you leave a place you keep a mental image, you don’t update it. Nineteen years is a long time to be away, what struck me the most was not the physical change but the mental change of people. It was weird to see my siblings because I didn’t know them when they were growing up and the visit left a bitter taste in my mouth because I missed their childhood, which I was enjoying. It made me realise where I belong; I feel like I don’t belong to one place but two places. My art work has given me the ability to stay connected with Iraq.”  

Wafaa insists that it would be wrong to neglect his past and create art that purely meets aesthetic needs. Using his art as therapy could explain Wafaa’s kind and mellow demeanour.

“I think my art is always political, even the decision of not making political art is a political decision. To me art is meditation; we could meditate on aesthetic, we could meditate on pain. My position does not allow me to meditate on aesthetic, so by nature the work becomes political, not by choice but I’m in a position that I have to express myself through this medium. My subject is my life.”

What could the professor possibly be planning next to carry on shocking the art world?

“My friends ask me ‘what are you going to do next?’ I just want to sit in the sun and enjoy a cup of tea.”

To view the artist’s project visit, www.3rdi.me.  The artist’s previous work can be found on his website, www.wafaabilal.com

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