Blank Book Campaign Restores War-torn Library

Blank Book Campaign Restores War-torn Library

bilalcover1The book pictured above arrived at my home in Detroit around Christmastime this year. Below is the story behind its being sent to me.  

Wartime adversely affected my late husband Charles’ dream of going to art school and becoming an artist when Adolf Hitler closed all art schools in Czechoslovakia during World War II.

Last year I read about Wafaa Bilal, another young man who dreamed of becoming an artist nearly 50 years later in his homeland of Iraq. He was deterred in Iraq because of his family’s opposition to Saddam Hussein. Bilal studied geography instead and continued to create political art. His work was confiscated by the police and he was arrested as a dissident for his work critical of Hussein. Bilal refused to participate in the invasion of Kuwait and organized opposition groups. He eventually fled the country in 1991 and lived in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp teaching art to children.

Wafaa Bilal came to the United States in 1992 and studied art at the University of New Mexico (BFA 1999) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he earned an MFA in 2003. His brother was killed by a U.S. missile strike at a checkpoint in 2004 which intensified his denunciation of the Iraqi War.

Last January 2016 through Ontario’s Art Gallery of Windsor (across the river from Detroit) I found out about a Kickstarter campaign for a project Wafaa Bilal called 168:01. Through the project he highlighted and acknowledged the destruction of the cultural history of Iraq while enacting a process to rebuild it and move forward. The project appealed to me because of my interest in art and opposition to the Iraqi War. But the greatest appeal was because I’m a librarian and know the importance of books for learning.

168:01 consisted of a simple installation of blank white books gesturing to the loss of the entire library at the University of Baghdad, College of Fine Arts where 70,000+ books were destroyed during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. These white books functioned as a way to rebuild the library through a system of grassroots support. The artist made white books which were to be exchanged for the gift of a lost book or a donation to the 168:01 Kickstarter campaign. As a result the project would replace over 1,000 lost books to the University of Baghdad.

The title of the project and the blank white book installation also alluded to the 13th century Mongol siege of Baghdad. At the time Baghdad was home to the largest library in the world, the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom. The siege resulted in the destruction of the House of Wisdom. Wafaa noted, “According to legend, the library was thrown into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books for the Mongolian army to cross. The pages bled blue ink into the river for seven days, after which the books were drained of knowledge. 168:01 takes its title from this story of loss, representing the first second after 168 hours (or seven days), which signals the beginning of rebirth and process of moving forward to rebuild.”

Bilal’s exhibition at Ontario’s Art Gallery of Windsor, opened January 29, 2016 and featured a 72 foot bookshelf holding 1,000 blank white books. The white books were gradually replaced with the art textbooks purchased after funds were raised through a Kickstarter campaign. The first 200 people who donated received a white book signed by Bilal. At the end, all the real books were shipped to the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

I’m honored to have received my white signed book pictured above and to have helped to restore the collection of the College of Fine Arts Library in Bagdad. I’d love to visit there some day.

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