WAFAA BILAL

168:01

The College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost its
entire library during the 2003 USAmerican invasion of Iraq.
Due to looters who set fire to the collection, approximately 70,000 books
were reduced to ashes. More than seventeen years later,
few books remain in the library for art students to read and study.
168:01 is a monument to this staggering cultural loss and a platform for the
library’s potential rebirth. The work’s title references a thirteenth-century
legend, in which an invading Mongol army set fire to the libraries of Baghdad,
throwing the books of the Bait al-Hikma - the House of Wisdom - into the Tigris River,
where their pages bled ink for seven days — or 168 hours. Bilal’s title, 168:01,
refers to the first minute after such a loss, which is also, for him, the starting
point for recovery. With the goal of restocking the lost libraries of Iraqi universities and
institutions, 168:01 invites visitors to fill these shelves with books
requested by Iraqi students and take one of the blank white books on the shelf
in exchange. As book donations accrue, these austere white bookshelves will become
saturated with knowledge and colour; while the white takeaway books will
serve as a reminder to their new owners that not everyone has the same access
to knowledge. The donated books will be shipped at the close of the exhibition to the
University of Baghdad, the University of Mosul, the University of Babylon
and the National Museum of Iraq to help with the process of rebuilding. 168:01 is
showing for the first time in the Arab world, in the Emirate of Sharjah. As the legacy of
the Sharjah World Book Capital 2019, the newly opened House of
Wisdom aims to continue to ease access to knowledge for all. Hosting the 168:01
exhibition in the House of Wisdom not only honors the historical significance of Iraq
Baghdad, land of the original House of Wisdom, but also celebrates the
potential of books to unite and empower people — a sentiment in the core of the
new cultural hub. To take part in this cause: Purchase an Arabic or English book from
the table at the far end of the exhibition, place your book on the shelf and
take one blank book as your keepsake. Thank you in advance.

The Ashes Series

In conjunction with the white books on display in 168:01, Wafaa Bilal
presents The Ashes Series — a powerful suit of photographs that depict
reconstructed media images of the destruction caused by the Iraq War.
Composed over the course of ten years, The Ashes Series portrays painstakingly
detailed miniature reconstructions of original press photographs.
Each set is scattered with twenty-one grams of ashes and re-photographed
in medium format.
The reconstructed images immerse its viewers in landscapes whose
haunting quality re-sensitizes the viewer to its entrenched power of loss.

These once bustling cultural spaces bear witness to the stark
absence of human life, whose renewed presence is represented by the
viewer’s arrival to its suspended aftermath. As with the white library, Wafaa
Bilal seeks to activate a state of encounter between viewers and the image.
This exhibition invites visitors to participate in 168:01 and join the international
network of individuals whose combined efforts share momentum towards building a
brighter future of possibilities.

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