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“Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art and Resistance Under the Gun” with Artist Wafaa Bilal

April 3, 2009 @ 7:00 pm 9:00 pm EDT

“Virtual Jihadi” artist returns to Capital Region with new book. Wafaa Bilal braves fear of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Troy censorship to speak again! Iraqi-American digital artist Bilal’s new book Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art and Resistance Under the Gun tells the story of the Domestic Tension project that placed him 24/7 on the receiving end of a paintball gun accessible online to a global audience – and what really happened on his infamous visit to Troy last spring.

This presentation is co-sponsored by Women Against War.

Press Release:

Wafaa Bilal has exhibited his art world wide, and traveled and lectured extensively to inform audiences of the situation of the Iraqi people, and the importance of peaceful conflict resolution.

He will be speaking about, and signing copies of, his new book “Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art and Resistance Under the Gun” (City Lights), about his experiences as an Iraqi-American living in the United States.

According to a review in Publisher’s Weekly, “Weaving together accounts of Iraq and America, art and violence, performance and reality, past and present, this gripping account all but shakes the reader by the lapels.”

Bilal’s 2007 dynamic installation “Domestic Tension” placed him on the receiving end of a paintball gun that was accessible online to a worldwide audience, 24 hours a day. Newsweek called the project “breathtaking” and the Chicago Tribune called the month-long piece “one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time,” and named Bilal its 2007 Artist of the Year.

Bilal has exhibited worldwide including in Baghdad, the Netherlands, Thailand and Croatia; as well as at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Milwaukee Art Museum and various other US galleries. His residencies have included Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California; Catwalk in New York; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In March 2008, his installation at RPI called “The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi” drew controversy when a few Campus Republicans demanded its closure.  RPI President Shirley Jackson responded by ordering the art work removed from campus, leading to accusations of politically-motivated censorship and widespread condemnation.

The exhibit was offered sanctuary off-campus at The Sanctuary for Independent Media, a community-based media center in north Troy.

Rensselaer County Republican Majority Leader Bob Mirch, who was at the time employed by former State Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, led a protest against the exhibit surrounded by his employees from the City of Troy’s Department of Public Works.  The next day, City of Troy code enforcement officials under his supervision ordered the building closed.

The resulting public outcry, which included an angry protest outside Troy City Hall, resulted in donations of tens of thousands of dollars to support The Sanctuary for Independent Media and an outpouring of volunteers.

The Sanctuary for Independent Media–whose programming was hosted in exile by supportive local churches, small businesses and other organizations–re-opened a month later, in April 2008.

The Capital Region branch of the New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a notice of claim against the City of Troy in preparation for a possible lawsuit.

In “The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi,” Bilal casts himself as a suicide-bomber in the game.  After learning of the real-life death of his brother in the war, he is recruited by Al Qaeda to join the hunt for Bush.

“Virtual Jihadi” is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as “Quest for Saddam” along with vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S.’s failed strategy in securing Iraq. The work also aims to shed light on groups that traffic in crass and hateful stereotypes of Arab culture with games like Quest for Saddam and other media.

According to Bilal, “In these difficult times, when we are at war with another nation, it is our duty as artists and citizens to improvise strategies of engagement for dialogue. This platform is a piece of fiction that uses the video game format to create alternative narratives and perspectives.”

“Because we inhabit a comfort zone far from the trauma of conflict zone, we Americans have become desensitized to the violence of war. We are disconnected, disengaged while many others do the suffering. The game holds up a mirror that reveals our own propensities for violence, racism and propaganda. We can close our eyes, our ears and deny that it exists, but the issue won’t go away.”

Wafaa Bilal was born in Iraq on June 10, 1966. Because a member of his family had been accused of disloyalty to his country, Wafaa was denied the opportunity to pursue his dream of being an artist. Instead, he was to attend college to major in geography. While in college, he continued to pursue his art and was arrested and tortured for his political art work against Sadaam Hussein.

Shortly after the Gulf War, Wafaa was inspired by President Bush’s message to the Iraqi citizens that if they attempted to overthrow Sadaam, the U.S. would stand behind them. He became involved in organizing opposition to the government and was scheduled for arrest and execution when he escaped into Kuwait. There he was accused of being a spy and was close to being shot when his student ID convinced them he told the truth.

Wafaa was sent to a refugee camp on the Kuwaiti border. In the camp, people laughed when rather than accept life in a tent he began forming brick that he dried in the sun and fashioned into a home. The adobe served a practical purpose, for it provided relative safety from abduction by Kuwaiti soldiers who sneaked into tents in the middle of the night to kidnap young people for sale to Iraqi soldiers who tortured, raped and executed them or the Turkish soldiers themselves would rape and kill them.

For two years, Wafaa lived in limbo not knowing if each day would be his last. Still Wafaa worked to improve his art, cleaning toilets in the camp to earn the money for art supplies, buying supplies for children for art therapy to help them to work through the horrors witnessed. His experiences developed within him an abhorrence of violence and oppression and strengthened his inner resolve.

In 1992, Wafaa came to the United States and took classes to learn English. Then, he began art studies at the University of New Mexico where he excelled. His art is of a political nature that speaks to oppression of the human spirit, including that of women who are bound by the rules of culture. He has won many awards for his art as well as a scholarship to the Chicago Institute of Art for post graduate study. He is now teaching at New York University in New York City.

We are committed to lowering the barriers to access for events at The Sanctuary for Independent Media. For people who are hard of hearing or deaf, blind or low-vision, or whose physical limitations can interfere with a satisfying experience, let us know two weeks in advance so we can make appropriate arrangements.

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