Bassim Al Shaker
When I heard everyone’s voice at our first meetings about documenta, I felt like I had gone back home again. When we started Sada, we didn’t really know what we were doing; our thinking was all over the place. When Sada came, it helped us to harness our energy into a place we could work from. So coming back together also took us back to that time when we were starting to feel things out. We’re all very different after eight years. It’s like not being able to see your family for years. Then you do, and everyone has grown; they’re all different, and you are too. It was a shock, but in a good way.
You know when you have a dream, and some parts are familiar and some not at all? That’s how this felt, because we started out together in Baghdad, during the heaviest of times. We were all in college, or recent graduates of the art school, and then, boom, Sada came. It was like a hurricane, because everything we were learning was completely new and different from what we’d learned in school, which was only technical skills. On the one hand, we were laughing: What is all this? Is it really art? On the other hand, we took it really seriously, once we understood that we could think outside the box of traditional art-making. Sada gave us so much of what we know now, what we continued with, all in different ways and on different paths. So it’s fascinating to remember how we started, to see where we went with it, and to think about what we know now. It was wild. It is wild.
Shakir Hassan al Sayyid was the first artist who really shifted art in Iraq, through abstraction. But the main difference between the artists working during the seventies and eighties and my generation, I believe, is the fear. The fear is different. The generation before mine had more fear, because they lived through one war after another as adults: the Iran-Iraq War and both Gulf Wars. My generation has its own distinct fear, because we grew up between Saddam’s regime and the militias and today’s government. Under Saddam, you had to look behind you; you couldn’t say anything, even in your own home, because someone might report you. The fear was everywhere. My generation lived only a small part of that. But when Saddam was gone we had a new kind of fear: of militias, of bombs. The generation born after mine, in 2000 or later, has much less fear than we did. For them, the militias are still there, but in a different way, and the government is weak. So they are less afraid and their voices are louder than ours were. Technology, too, is helping this generation speak up, which is amazing. You can see the changes starting with the Tishreen [October] movement. I never imagined a movement like that could take place.
Initially, working on the documenta films was a serious challenge for everyone, because we are not filmmakers. The prospect of creating and sharing films at one of the largest art events in the world, having never worked in this medium, was a nightmare. But we used our materials—the materials we use to paint, to perform—to make film. For example, I used my drawing skills to do animation, so it was still in my world. The process opened up new ways to use moving images; prior to this I didn’t think I could use film in the ways that I did.
I didn’t see all the films together until we got to documenta. I was curious what I would see. Would it make sense in the context of documenta? Are we good enough? I had all these questions. But when I saw the exhibition, I was very happy. And every time I watch the films, I find more and more in them.
Someone asked me why I mixed stop-motion and hand-drawn animation, because usually people do one or the other. It’s because when the militia took me and beat me, I couldn’t do anything, but this time I could control them and move them and talk to them. I cried several times when I made the figures of the men in the militia. I was talking to them, holding them, and moving them around while making the stop-motion, and I was happy, because I was the one in charge of them. I realized this at documenta as I watched the film over and over again and stepped outside of myself. This film exposed only a small snapshot of my experience. At some point I want to make a longer, more detailed film. But that is for another time.