A Bridge of Books: Wafaa Bilal Exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum

July 26, 2018 | Brent

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From July 14th to August 19th, the Aga Khan Museum is hosting an installation by Wafaa Bilal 168:01. The exhibit consists of a ghostly white book shelf filled with blank books with white covers. These empty books are placeholders for items lost from the collections of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad during the Iraq war. In 2003, the library was looted and shortly afterwards the building set on fire. The entire collection of 70,000 volumes was lost.

Visitors to the exhibit are invited to replace a blank book with a title from the wish list Bilal put together with help from a group of retired Canadian librarians. While restoring the complete collection of contemporary and historical titles is impossible, the new list provides the foundation for developing artists in the future. Visitors can donate physical copies, give money through the artist’s website or purchase a title through a special Amazon wish list.

The eclectic list combines books on historic and contemporary art with books on craft and technique. Here are some sample titles:

Islamic art 

The Art of the Quran

Mosaic Techniques & Traditions
  Picasso Sculpture


Paper sculpture

Whether it’s through natural catastrophe (such as the Royal Library of Portugal, Ribeira Palace in 1755), fire (the Rennie Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art ) or deliberate human action, the destruction of a library creates cultural shocks felt on many levels. Libraries are repositories of cultural knowledge and human memory. Frequently the buildings that house them are cultural heritage sites in and of themselves. 

In times of war, the destruction of libraries, museums and other institutions become a means of undermining the invaded peoples’ sense of itself. From the Library of Alexandria to the Jaffna Public Library to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, losses are felt for generations. The title of Bilal’s exhibit comes from yet another example of cultural looting: in the 13th century, Mongol invaders took over Istanbul and ransacked the large private library known as the House of Wisdom. For a week, library books were literally used to build a bridge for the army over the Tigris river. It was said that the river ran black from the ink of the books for a week—or 168 hours—until their contents were washed away. 

Palace of Wisdom

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, artists have been dealing with the impact of the war as well as the loss of unique cultural assets.

Bilal is one of several artists dealing with the replacement of threatened cultural artifacts and heritage items. Matthew Vincent and Chance Coughenour produced 3D models of cultural artifacts lost when ISIS looted the Mosul Museum. With a nod to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Toronto artist Abbas Akhavan exhibited ghostly metal archival copies of plants native to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, first at Toronto’s Mercer Union gallery and later at the Guggenheim.

Bilal has engaged in more confrontational work earlier in his career, most famously in a piece called “Domestic Tension” in which the visitors to an internet site were invited to remotely fire a paintball gun at the artist’s head. The piece helped provide the title of an autobiography Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun which told of his experiences under Saddam Hussein’s regime. When asked about his new approach, the artist explained:

“There’s an obsession, I think, with images of conflict — when war is taking place, you want to engage people with that. But what happens post-conflict? Either you move on, or you look and say, what needs to be done now? I want to reflect the time now, and now is about rebuilding.”

Fortunately, Toronto Public Library users have access to rich holdings of both historical and contemporary Arabic & Islamic art materials: 

Doris Duke's Shangri La

 Islamic Geometric Design

Art in Iraq Today 

Hayv Kahraman 

Technologies of the Image 

Longing for Eternity


Toronto residents also have an opportunity to get free access to the Aga Khan Museum as well as a host of other cultural venues through the Museum + Arts Pass Program.