In 2013, Tamara Chalabi helped make history at the Venice Biennale. As the chair and co-founder of the Ruya Foundation, a Baghdad-based cultural organization, Chalabi commissioned an Iraqi pavilion at the event; it was the second time that Iraq had participated in the Biennale, but the first time that the pavilion had featured artists still living and working in the country.
With the Ruya Foundation’s help, Iraqi artists returned to the Biennale in 2015 and 2017. But something had started to trouble Chalabi. As Javier Pes reports for Artnet News, she noticed that when Iraqi artists returned home from the prestigious event, after being featured alongside some of the biggest names in contemporary art, their careers stalled. Iraq, a country beset by violence and instability, has little in the way of an art market.
“[T]here is no chance for any of the artists to have a future as an artist,” Chalabi tells Pes. “Unless they leave, and to leave you have to leave as a refugee or an illegal immigrant.”
So Chalabi decided to found Ruya Maps, an upcoming project that seeks to bring attention to the work of artists who live and work in conflict zones or other struggling regions—artists who, as Chalabi puts it in her interview with Pes, are “invisible” to the Western market.
According to Gareth Harris of the Art Newspaper, the project will include exhibitions, talks, commissions and pop-ups. The entire program will be announced in the fall of this year, but the first event has already been scheduled for October: an exhibition of the work of Venezuelan visual artist Pepe López at the Fitzrovia Chapel in central London.
The show will feature Lopez’s installation “Crisálida,” a 60-foot long display of objects from the artist’s family home in Caracas—including a car, an urn and a piano—wrapped in polyethylene film. According to Artforum, the exhibition will mark Lopez’s first solo showing in the United Kingdom.
Lopez created “Crisálida” in the midst of Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis; the country’s annual inflation rate recently breached 25,000 percent. Ongoing food shortages have led to unrest and desperation.
“Wrapping every object is almost like embalming them,” Chalabi tells Pes, commenting on Lopez’s installation. Artists, she adds, can “feel the same sense of loss and hopelessness whether they come from Syria, Kashmir, or Venezuela.”
With Ruya Maps, Chalabi hopes to not only create more opportunities for artists that live in politically unstable regions, but also foster awareness about challenges that people are facing across the globe.
“[Ruya Maps] aims to establish cultural legacies for some of the world’s most disempowered communities”, Chalabi tells Emma Latham Phillips of It’s Nice That. “It will allow audiences to engage with the difficult subjects of our time through the universal language of art.”