January 27, 2016

Art installation will help restock Baghdad’s destroyed library


Image via the project's Kickstarter page

Image via the project’s Kickstarter page

An Iraqi-American artist is using installation art to restock the University of Baghdad’s library.

As Marta Bausells reports for The Guardian, Wafaa Bilal’s exhibition at the Gallery of Windsor in Ontario will take the form of a 72ft bookshelf filled with 1,000 white books that are completely blank inside.

The books are available to purchase from the artist for $25: the buyer will get the blank book to keep, and it will be replaced on the shelf with a real book. At the end of the exhibition, all of the new books will be sent to help restock the library at Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts.

The library was completely destroyed during the Iraq war, when it was burned to the ground and its collection of 70,000 books was lost. Although the building itself has been rebuilt, it mostly stands empty of books. As a student at the university, Bilal had used the library every day and told The Guardian, “This used to be one of best fine art institutions in the Middle East, if not the world.”

Bilal explained the symbolism behind the project on its Kickstarter page:

The white library stands as an austere monument of loss that simultaneously activates a potential for rebirth. Each book in the white library is embedded with the possibility of rebuilding anew from the ashes of cultural decimation.

Bilal has named the installation ‘168:01’ which, according to The Guardian, remembers a historical precedent for the library’s destruction:

The title of the installation, 168:01, refers to the 13th-century destruction of the historic House of Wisdom library – then the largest in the world – at the hands of Mongolians. “Legend has it that they dumped its entire contents into the Tigris river to create a bridge to cross over, and that the pages bled for seven days – 168 hours,” Bilal said. “The extra 1 is that second when I imagine the books turned white and drained of knowledge.”

The Kickstarter aimed to raise $9,000 and has already raised $43,919, but Bilal is also pleased with how the project has opened up communication between Iraqi students and the rest of the world. He told The Guardian:

People are already talking to each other about the loss and the rebuilding of culture…The communication of students and faculty with people outside the country means more to them than is imaginable.




Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.