Sixteen bodies in white painter suits stand outside the United Nations in Vienna, the hashtag #save_the_Iraqi_people painted on their backs in black. Laptops sit in their arms displaying a split-screen of images — a man runs through the alleyways of Baghdad at night while yelling into the camera; fires from grenade explosions flash around the screen in a loop. The Vienna-based performance group known as Iraqi Autumn leans on silence as a gesture of dissent, commenting on the silence of the international community regarding the outbreak of violence in Iraq over the past two months.
On October 1, protests in the country’s capital turned deadly when Iraqi security forces began firing live ammunition and tear gas at civilian protesters. Since then, the protests have spread across the country rapidly, as has the government’s pushback, with over 320 people killed and an estimated 15,000 injured. Iraqi Autumn, a group of young Iraqis who have sought asylum in Europe, uses performance art to respond to the crisis.
One of the group’s members gathers his long hair, covers it in mud, then begins cutting it off. In Iraq, the wives of soldiers have traditionally cut their hair as an act of erasing their femininity, viewing hair as both sexy and holy. Cutting it allows its owner to perform their grief. Much of Iraqi Autumn’s work points to this notion of autonomy and how, particularly in spaces of political oppression, this liberty is muzzled.
“For so long, so many Iraqis have been incredibly hopeless about the ability for change,” says Reem, a 32-year-old architect who left Baghdad seven years ago when her involvement in local activism posed a threat to her and her family. She explained to Hyperallergic: “When you feel that you don’t belong in your country, you’re constantly seeking a homeland. I’ve never felt the feeling of pride about belonging to a certain country before this October, when I saw so many young people putting themselves in extreme danger.”
The protesters back home are currently revolting against the mass corruption that’s reined over Iraq for the past 16 years, and which remains omnipresent despite the long-awaited eradication of ISIS. Iraq has the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, yet a large portion of the population still lacks access to jobs, education, and healthcare.
Several weeks after their UN performance, the group gathers in Vienna’s Platz der Menschenrechte (Human Rights Square) for another improvisational protest. One member begins an interpretive dance. When the body chooses to move, it does so in jolts, writhing on the floor in directionless spasms, wringing the body out in a choreography of delayed shapes. What does silence do to a body, the performance asks. What becomes subsumed, and how do we trace the urge to expel it? “I was born and raised in war,” says Havi, the group’s oldest member who left Iraq in 1994 due to his activism against Sadam’s regime. He now works in the intersection of sculpture and conceptual art. “I do my art within the memory of war,” he says.
Across the square, fellow member Yasir performs his own act of memory. He shapes mounds of mud with his fingers and drapes it over his eyes. It’s the same mud from his fellow member’s hair, the same mud Iraqis use to build their homes and ovens for baking bread. “In Arabic, there’s something about mud that represents sorrow combined with shame,” Reem explains. “When someone dies, people speak of placing their hands in mud and covering their eyes and head.” A circle of candles isolates Yasir in the square. A dead camera pretends to film him.
The performances by Iraqi Autumn repeatedly beg the question, Who is the onlooker? Bystanders gather, ask questions, snap photos on their phones. But this doesn’t seem to be the point. The performers aren’t the subject, they’re merely insignia. The streets of Vienna are clean, and protesting bodies clad in clean white painter’s suits mimic a façade of peace. In Baghdad, tear gas has flooded the city’s nooks and crannies. It sticks to everything, says Hussein, a 30-year-old actor who founded a theater group with some classmates from the Baghdad College of Fine Arts a decade ago. The group gained a reputation around Baghdad, which culminated when a public performance of Othello was televised, ultimately causing Hussein to flee the country. Today, protesters in Iraq wash themselves with bottles of Coke, which helps minimize the effects of the gas. They catch the grenades in their arms and throw them back at the police. In Vienna, a performer holds a bottle of Coke toward the sky. He squats in a T-shirt and helmet, the uniform worn by many of the young protesters back home. He draws a red target over his shirt in Reem’s red lipstick. Here I am, he holds out his arms in submission, Come for me.
Social media marks one of the main channels through which news of the violence has spread (the video of a young man being shot in the middle of an interview was the initial trigger for many media channels, and #save_the_Iraqi_people has gone viral). “The most beautiful thing about this revolution is that the protesters are peaceful,” Havi explains. “Every Iraqi family has guns, but they’re not using them. They only have their phones to connect to the world.”
Iraqi Autumn was one of the first groups of artists to respond to the protests, inspiring others to do so as well. In their short film “In Your Dreams,” the members sit in Havi’s studio where they meet regularly. “Be proud of yourselves,” they speak into the camera against a backdrop of sirens. “Dreaming is a gift. The ones you killed will return to you in your dreams.” Since the violence began, Iraqi Autumn has organized recurring performances around Vienna in an effort to stand in solidarity with the unarmed protestors back home and educate the Austrian community.