Over My Eyes: Stories of Iraq at DOX

A new exhibition shows the human side of the people in Iraq

Iraq for decades has been seen in the West in headlines related to conflict. A new show at DOX Centre for Contemporary Art tries to show a different picture of the people in the country.

The show is called Over My Eyes: Stories of Iraq. It uses both recent and archival photographs, and some videos, to show daily life in several parts of the country. The title Over My Eyes comes from the literal translation of the Kurdish and Arabic phrases meaning “you are welcome.” The show runs until Jan. 8, 2018.

Visitors are supposed to follow a specific path through the exhibition that goes through the work of six photographers. The entry shows a collection of news stories about conflict, pasted into a collage on the walls. This is to present the common image, which the show will try to counter. Next, a video shows a fire in a cave where there were traces of civilization going back 50,000 years.

The first set of photographs is called Smugglers, by photographer Aram Karim. These show both the natural beauty and lifestyle in the northern border regions of Iraq, where smuggling goods across the border has been a way of life for generations. Aram Karim grew up near the Iraq-Iran border, and was able to get access to daily life that outside photographers could never achieve.

The next section is Iraq: Situations, captures mundane moments of life that still happen despite the conflict and political turmoil. These pictures by Ali Arkady include views of carnivals, people swimming and rockets being launched. Some of the most graphically artistic images are in his section.

The star of the exhibition is A Kurdish Archive by Twana Abdullah. The photographer, who passed away 1992, left behind thousands of negatives. For political reasons, most similar archives of photos were destroyed out of fear. Part of the archives is being shown for the first time. The pictures are a mix of scenic shots and snapshots of daily life as well as studio portraits. Almost 300 small square studio portraits show the diversity of people in the Kurdish region.

Color film and processing was hard to come by in the Kurdish region, and many of the black-and-white photos have been colored in by hand with watercolors. The photos range from 1974 up to 1992. Some of the negatives have been badly damaged, and the prints are shown with the flaws unretouched.

The photographer's son Rawsht Twana has tried to get the photos shown for may years, and hopes that this exhibition will be just the first.

The final main section is also rather moving. Escaped by Seivan M. Salim shows Yazidi women who have escaped from Isis after the city of Sinjar fell. The Sunni look on the Yazidi minority as devil worshipers, according to a text accompanying the photos, due to their religion that combines Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity. Thousands of women were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, and a few have managed to get out to tell their stories.

The women did not want their faces shown on film, for fear of repercussions to their relatives. They were photographed in traditional wedding dress with a veil covering their heads, standing against a black background. The dress is meant as a symbol of purity, but to Western viewers the pictures have a ghostly look. The photographer, though, said it was not her intention but if people see it that way then it helps to highlight the horrors the women have lived through. The individual stories of the women are explained on signs on the adjoining wall.

All of the women are actually in the same dress, as they escaped with very little and there was only one traditional dress available to the photographer.

A side room has an interactive part of the exhibit called Map of Displacement, which has more information about the photos and events related to them, and photos by more photographers.

One of the curators of Over My Eyes, Stefano Carini, has a side exhibit at DOX called The Woman, The Moon, The Snake that showcases his own photos of Iraq. It is in the adjoining small alcove.

Stefano Carini and other photographers pointed out how hard it has been to get these images shown. While there is a market for conflict images, the stories of the people in Iraq seem to have less appeal. Seivan M. Salim said she thought there would be great interest in her wedding dress portraits and stories, but getting them published was a hard task.

The exhibition takes up the main gallery space on the entry lever floor of DOX. Getting the whole intended story takes some time, as there is lot of information to absorb. But the show works both as a display of art, since many of the photos are quite striking, and educational exhibit, as it contradicts much of the common narrative about Iraq.

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