In 2003, at the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, looters set fire to the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. The college’s vast collection of 70,000 books was destroyed, and 15 years later, students still have few titles at their disposal. So, as Hadani Ditmars reports for the Art Newspaper, an installation at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is asking the public to help replenish the school’s lost library.
“168:01,” as the project by Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal is titled, is a stark white display featuring bookshelves filled with 1,000 blank books. Visitors are encouraged to replenish the volumes with titles from an Amazon wish list compiled by the college’s students and faculty; donations can be made by sending the books on the wish list to the museum, or by gifting funds to the project through Bilal’s website.
In exchange for their donations, visitors are able to take home one of the exhibition’s white volumes that represent a rich cultural heritage stripped bare by years of conflict. In turn, the colorful books they contributed to the project will ultimately be sent to the College of Fine Arts.
“I wanted a simple visual representation of what’s been lost,” Bilal told Murray Whyte of the Toronto Star last month. “But what’s important is that, over time, this place comes back to life.”
Though Bilal’s project is focused on recouping the losses of one tragic event, “168:01” calls attention to a long history of cultural destruction in Iraq. The installation’s title refers to the destruction of the House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikma, a grand library possibly founded by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur in the 8th century. Legend has it that when the Mongols laid siege to Baghdad in 1258, the library’s entire collection of manuscripts and books were thrown into the Tigris. The river is said to have run black for seven days—or 168 hours—due to all the ink seeping into its waters. But the "o1" in the installation's title is meant to signify a new era of restoration in Iraq—one that looks beyond centuries of loss.
Bilal, who came to America as a refugee in the wake of the First Gulf War, often reflects upon the traumas that have taken place in the country of his birth. In one of his best known works, the 2007 project "Domestic Tension," the artist sequestered himself in a gallery space and broadcasted live on the internet. Viewers could chat with him at all hours—and opt to shoot him with a robotically controlled paintball gun.
"168:01," by contrast, seeks to move forward from violence. “To be completely frank, when we talk about war and destruction, when you try to bring that image here, I don’t think it resonates,” Bilal told Whyte of the Star. “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.”
“168:01” was first conceptualized with the Art Gallery of Windsor and curator Srimoyeee Mitra for Bilal’s major solo exhibition at the museum in 2016. The project has since appeared in various iterations at other museums and galleries around the globe—from a tall tower of books at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool to an entire room at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts.
Though the installation at the Aga Khan Museum winds down Sunday, it will be rebuilt for the National Veterans Art Museum Triennial in Chicago next summer.
To date, thanks to visitors who have donated to the project, Bilal has been able to ship 1,700 texts back to Baghdad, contributing to the effort to rebuild the College of Fine Arts' once prolific collection.