Wafaa Bilal lives through a constantly shifting lens. The artist fled Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991, abandoning his classes at Baghdad University and his family home near Najaf. He spent more than a year in refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, then along with his brother got asylum in the U.S. He settled first in New Mexico, where he studied art at the University of New Mexico. He went on to teach as an adjunct at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Today, Bilal is an assistant professor at New York University and has gained global attention for groundbreaking works. He became a target for public attention with “Domestic Tension/aka Shoot an Iraqi,” where he sequestered himself in a gallery for a month with a paintball gun people could shoot at him over the internet. He is also the brain behind the 3rdi project, in which a camera was implanted in the back of his scalp in order to transmit photos to a website once a minute for a year.
Bilal’s work has often crossed with controversy. For example, in the video project “Virtual Jihadi,” exhibited in Troy, New York in 2008, he inserted himself as a character in a video game that had originally been created by an American designer as “Hunt for Saddam,” and was later hacked by Al Qaeda to become “Night of Bush Capturing”—a pursuit of then-President George W. Bush (called ). Wafaa’s project, a rumination on double standards in foreign policy and public opinion, was decried as a call for terrorism by a local Republican elected official and others. Protesters carried openly violent and racist signs, and the independent gallery where the work was to be shown was suspiciously shut down over a year-old building code violation. In January, the city finally settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
Journalist Kari Lydersen first met Wafaa reporting on his “Domestic Tension” project. The two co-authored the book Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, and continue as partners and collaborators. Here they discuss Wafaa’s experience as an immigrant and refugee, and how he uses art to make sense of it all.
Kari Lydersen: People may think it odd that you seem to inflict pain on yourself in order to make an artistic statement – with the camera inserted in your head for “3rdi,” the paint balls shot at you for Shoot an Iraqi and all the tattoos for “…and counting.” Can you explain the intersection between your work and your attitude toward physical pain?
Wafaa Bilal: I’m dealing with these two zones – the comfort zone and the conflict zone. I need to find a way to engage my viewers in exploring these two zones, using a language other than rhetoric, other than the mental language. So I’m using the body, the corporal language. The pain that’s inflicted on me allows people to come closer to the issues I’m talking about, because their bodies viscerally identify with the pain I’m experiencing. And even if that doesn’t happen, at the very least it raises the question of what would motivate someone to inflict pain on oneself. With that question, hopefully people come to meaningful conclusions. There’s honesty about it – it’s a strategy to engage; it’s not for the love of pain!
KL: What would you say to people who might psychoanalyze you, saying the pain is a way to deal with your guilt at leaving Iraq or the trauma you’ve been through in war and as a refugee?
WB: Well yeah there is the survival guilt, that’s true too. But after a while you understand the guilt and then you don’t continue with it, you’re able to stop it. The use of pain in my work is really not about guilt, it really is a matter of engagement.
KL: How does the participation of viewers fit into your approach to installation art? What do you hope to accomplish by engaging people directly?
WB: What I’m calling my work is dynamic encounters. In dynamic encounters, the role of the artist changes from authoritarian, imposing one view, to being an initiator of a platform that the viewers are invited to use. Without the participation of the viewer, most of these art projects wouldn’t even exist. I’m trying to have active participants rather than passive participation.
KL: Do you think this dynamic, interactive aspect is even more important when you’re trying to reach people from a different country and different background than you?
WB: Yes, I would say so. And I am employing pop culture in these projects to cultivate active participation – mediums and symbols that people from this country can relate to. For example with “Shoot an Iraqi,” so many things employed in that project are so American – the game of paintball, the remote control weaponry and even the internet itself. By understanding the culture, one can have more impact through these art projects.
KL: Can you talk about your experience as a migrant – your movement from Iraq to the US, and your ongoing travels around the world as an artist? Do you consider yourself a refugee?
WB: The only time I feel like a refugee is when I’m at the airport, when I’m stopped and searched and re-searched three or four times. That reminds me always that no matter how long I stay here, I’m always a foreigner. But the issue of refugees, we can be refugees in our own countries. The issues of belonging… When I left Iraq I knew I wouldn’t find home, but I would find a place that I could call home. I think there’s a big difference between these two. When you are home, you don’t question whether you belong to it or not.
KL: So when you are in the place you call home, there’s still always the question of whether you really belong in the back of your mind?
WB: Absolutely – things as simple as people looking at you differently. You always have that in the back of your mind as a refugee.
KL: In terms of the idea of who “belongs” here and who is the “other,” I have to mention the situation in Troy, N.Y. when your video project “Virtual Jihadi” was censored, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where you were supposed to present the work, had ordered security not to let you in the building. The security guard mistook you for just another professor, told you about this possible terrorist, Wafaa Bilal, who would be visiting the school, and then let you in.
WB: I remember (a friend and professor at the school), when she heard about that, said, ‘You have to work on your uniform!’ Seriously, I’ve never felt the way I felt in Troy anywhere else. The only thing that comes close is the way I was afraid for my life in the refugee camp. It was an extremely intense, extremely isolated feeling. But now with the lawsuit finally settled, I’m really happy to see the people in Troy prevail. And hard as it was, overall the whole thing clearly raised awareness.
KL: In your early days in the U.S. did you encounter much discrimination or prejudice?
WB: The first days in New Mexico were difficult – and I don’t think I was aware how difficult it would be for immigrants. I was talking to everybody about Iraqi issues, and I think that agitated people because people weren’t really aware of what was going on overseas. Not everybody I met was open to talking about these things.
KL: When you were younger, you and your brother worked in jewelry factory in New Mexico that employed mostly immigrant workers. Your brother learned Spanish before he learned English. Did you feel a connection with Latino immigrants in New Mexico? As a refugee with legal status, did you think about how your situation differed from that of the undocumented workers?
WB: When I worked in the jewelry factory, I knew so many immigrants employed there were undocumented, Latinos and Asians, and also poor minorities and whites from the US. I found it strange to see how the country would both reject and use undocumented immigrants at the same time. Even today, we reject [and use] undocumented immigrants at the same time. They’re the ones picking the tomatoes and so many foods we eat on a daily basis. There has to be a better policy for immigration. People come for opportunities, and if the door is opened for them to be legalized they won’t be in a situation where they’re always afraid of authority.
KL: Can you relate to that experience of being afraid of authority, under Saddam?
WB: Definitely, in Iraq, and leaving Iraq and being in the refugee camp. I faced the same thing there even though I was a citizen, I was an oppressed citizen. I had to always carry an identity card to prove I belonged to that country.
KL: Did only Shia have to carry identity cards?
WB: No, everyone had to. But it was a metaphorical thing, a reminder that you were under the authority of the government, and we (Shia) were the ones oppressed by the government.
KL: I know you are really fascinated by pop culture, like Britney Spears, J-Lo, “The Family Guy,” etc. And I know you once said M.C. Hammer – and his style of pants – were popular in the slums of Baghdad when you were growing up. In general do you think the ubiquity of American pop culture around the world creates some kind of bridge or continuity for immigrants to the U.S.?
WB: Other cultures believe because the United States is open and free, these artists can flourish and project themselves the way they are, without censorship. So of course it’s being embraced by so many cultures as an example of openness and freedom of expression – whether it’s Britney Spears or Michael Jackson – they become idols around the world. They’re seen as symbols of openness and freedom, and as pushing the edge of entertainment.
KL: You’ve mentioned before that you’ve gotten disillusioned by much of the activism and activists you’ve met over the years in the US, from the people who sit in coffee shops talking all day without really do anything, to protesters who seem to just be shouting the same message over and over in a dogmatic way that doesn’t engage. And I’ve gotten the idea that sometimes you feel like these groups just want to use immigrants or refugees like you to bolster their cause or image, without truly wanting to hear what you have to say. How did these views evolve?
WB: When I arrived in this country, I embraced activism and I was on the street with many groups trying to raise awareness about Iraq and other issues and injustice in general. But I found out sometimes leftist groups can be self-defeating, because it’s not really about empowering [people], it’s about being down. Sometimes it’s alienating more than engaging. I find that I can do much more to engage people as an individual artist, rather than as part of a group. I’ve literally seen people on the street with groups I had worked with before, where they are getting in people’s faces and closing off the potential for dialogue [with people who are different], because they accuse others of being ignorant. I reject that idea of the “Other” being ignorant. Rather they are isolated and disengaged because of the machine that is behind that isolation. And people at coffee shops, especially the poets… not all of them, of course, but many…don’t really want to raise awareness; they want to isolate themselves. Perhaps because of a lack of creativity they paint themselves into a corner and see themselves as out there on the cutting edge, without wanting to relate to anyone else. To me, creativity is inspired by engaging with the public and reacting to what is going on out there. I don’t need to isolate myself to be creative, I need to engage to be creative.
KL: So do you really just not like poetry and poets?
WB: I love poetry, one of my favorites is Neruda – his words are amazing and it deals with politics as well. There are poets that make an amazing difference in politics – take Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet. He has inspired so many people in the Arab world and raised so much awareness about the issue of Palestine. His poem “I am an Arab,” talking about his ID card, his life, embracing who he is…
KL: You’ve been spending a lot of time on projects in the Arab world in the past year or two and you’ve mentioned wanting to work for an extended period in Doha or elsewhere in the Middle East. Is it hard to balance your connections to the US and the Arab world, and does it feel like a tension between the two?
WB: Whenever we cross that ocean we really still belong to both sides. To me I always embrace the best of any culture, and feel that I can equally embrace and belong to both of them. I don’t think it’s a struggle for me to be here or there. Wherever I am, I am nostalgic for the other. To me, sometimes it’s based on the project and the audience. I find myself in the last 20 years or so in the US, the audience is based here. But I also feel I could be in the Arab world and be able to do a project based on the culture and the heritage there.
KL: Have you been active with any immigration advocacy groups or campaigns? Have you tried to use artistic expression as a medium for raising issues of immigrants’ and migrants’ rights?
WB: Not yet, really. But I’m working on a project that will raise awareness about immigration and the border. Since it’s a sensitive plan, I can’t say anything more about it yet. It’s an issue I can’t ignore anymore, it’s come to be the forefront of the debate in the United States these days.
KL: Anything else you’d like to add?
WB: In terms of immigration and security, I just want to emphasize that whenever we build walls and fences, we fence ourselves in rather than keeping others out.