I remember the panic on my father’s face when the war sirens started wailing. Saddam Hussein’s missiles were flying in the direction of Israel in retaliation for the US-led Operation Desert Storm, which itself was a response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. I was about 11 at the time, living at my parents’ house in a small Palestinian town near Tel Aviv. My father made us wear gas masks that had been distributed to us by the Israeli authorities, out of fear of a chemical strike from Iraq. I remember refusing to wear the mask, finding the whole panic unjustified. My father didn’t take kindly to my disobedience: “Do you want to die? Put it on!” he hissed at me. When I finally complied, I refused to install a crucial part — a heavy metal filter —and my goggles steamed up from my breath. My siblings giggled at me through their (properly filtered) masks. Years later, we would learn that we’d been given ineffective gas masks.
This scene emerged from my memory as I walked through the exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 at MoMA PS1. Spanning the museum’s entire building, this immense group exhibition aims to examine the “legacies of American-led military engagement in Iraq” from 1991 onwards, via 250 works by more than 82 artists, about 30 of whom hail from Iraq.
The exhibition has so far made headlines not for its subject matter, but for the controversies around the institution hosting it. Phil Collins withdrew his work from the exhibition to protest MoMA trustee Larry Fink’s alleged investments in private prison companies. Michael Rakowitz paused his video work citing the same indignation and expanding the call to Leon Black, the chairman of MoMA’s Board of Trustees, whose company is invested in the defense contractor Constellis Holdings (formerly Blackwater, its staff killed 17 Iraqis and injured 20 in Nisour Square in 2007). Dozens of other participating artists reiterated Collins’s and Rakowitz’s protests in an open letter addressed to MoMA. The uproar is unlikely to peter out any time soon, not unless Fink and Black step down from the board, as did fellow disgraced billionaire Warren B. Kanders, who resigned as the Whitney Museum’s vice-chairman this summer.
Unsurprisingly, the exhibition’s most compelling works belong to Iraqi artists who’ve experienced the horrors of the Gulf wars firsthand. Hanaa Malallah‘s installation “She/He Has No Picture” (2019) chillingly commemorates the victims of an American attack that killed 408 Iraqis in a civilian shelter in 1991. Malallah, who was then living in Iraq, before moving to London in 2006, wove portraits of the victims from burnt canvas, based on family photos. Reflective brass plaques inscribed with the work’s title denote victims whose photos Malallah couldn’t locate in her research. Though moving, the confrontation of spectators with their reflection is a conceptual choice that has grown a bit trite.
Another exiled Iraqi artist living in London is Dia al-Azzawi, who’s rightly considered one of Iraq’s greatest living artists. The 81-year-old painter and sculptor is represented via several works in the exhibition, from his diaristic mixed-media Dafatir (Arabic for notebooks) to his monumental, “Guernica”-style painting “Mission of Destruction” (2004-2007), which sprawls over a large section of the museum’s third floor. The latter depicts a massacre: American soldiers on one side of the canvas point weapons at a chaotic mass of murdered, injured, and panicked Iraqis on the other. Here al-Azzawi, once known for his use of vibrant colors, switches his pallet to somber, muted tones, signifying the darkness that has befallen his country amid the war.
A pair of oil paintings by Basra-born artist Afifa Aleiby, who now lives in the Netherlands, evoke the Soviet tradition of monumental art (she studied at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow). In both paintings — “Gulf War” and “War Painting” (both 1991) — wounded women figures are set against the background of ancient relics, at once mourning the killing of Iraqis and the destruction and looting of the country’s cultural heritage.
One of the exhibition’s biggest achievements is highlighting the works of these remarkable Iraqi artists, who aren’t sufficiently known in the States. Jamal Penjweny’s satirical photographic series Saddam is Here (2009-10) features everyday Iraqis (butchers, dentists, etc) covering their faces with life-size pictures of the dictator’s face; Ali Eyal’s painting depicts the dead body of an Iraqi farmer spilling out of a car, painted in a pattern based on Google Earth aerial views; while Kuwaiti artist Thuraya Al Baqsami’s delicate, cerulean acrylics evoke the trauma that Kuwaitis suffered when Hussein’s army invaded their country.
Critical themes in the exhibition include the media’s complicity in warmongering (see Michel Auder’s 1991 video “Gulf War TV War”), the Bush administration’s lies and criminal appetite for Iraqi oil, American militarism (Allan Sekula’s War Without bodies, 1991/1996, which depicts American citizens admiring the weaponry used in Iraq) and the ungodly loss of lives in the region as a consequence (among the most graphic is Thomas Hirschhorn’s swiping through of images of mutilated Iraqi bodies in his 2012 video “Touching Reality.”) But one major element is oddly missing from the survey: there’s no acknowledgment of Bush junior’s gratuitous use of the 9/11 attacks as a false pretense to invade Iraq. You would think that in an exhibition about the Iraq War, this historic deception would have been directly addressed.
Conversely, there is a plenitude of artworks by Western artists with no better than a remote commentary on the Iraq wars. You get the obligatory political exhibition attendants, like Jenny Holzer and Guerilla Girls. And apparently, Richard Serra and Fernando Botero Angulo also had something to say about these wars.
The aforementioned works are not without their own merits, but ultimately, their inclusion prompts questions: Who is this exhibition for, and what is it trying to say? Opposing the Iraq wars is no longer controversial in today’s political climate, as most Americans have already realized that they’ve been duped into an unnecessary war.
Still, Theater of Operations remains an important exhibition. While we’ve known about the human cost of the Gulf wars, US audiences haven’t been sufficiently confronted with the cultural destruction they have wreaked on Iraq — evidenced by the great number of exiled Iraqi artists in the exhibition, whose lives and careers were disrupted by the American invasions. Had it been dedicated exclusively to the works of these artists, it would have been a more revelatory presentation.
Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 continues through March 1 at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens). The exhibition is organized by Peter Eleey and Ruba Katrib, with Jocelyn Miller, Josephine Graf and Oliver Shultz.