Toronto, Ontario—During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad had their entire library looted and set ablaze. In the carnage that followed, more than 70,000 books were lost or destroyed.
Fifteen years later, the artist Wafaa Bilal’s newest installation at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto attempts to correct this injustice by inviting members of the public to help restore the College’s lost library.
The exhibition, 168:01, invites visitors to make donations in exchange for a parting gift. Yet, rather that simply replicating the lost archives, Bilal asked faculty and students of the College for an Amazon Wishlist of books he offers to visitors, a world-class compendium of materials spanning history, science, politics and art. For every donation the artist receives, a blank white book is given in return.
According to Bilal’s artist statement, “Here, hushed stacks take on the oppressive silence of a tomb, suggesting that cultural destruction is a sustained and compounded loss,” encouraging viewers to understand how victimization occurs across multiple geographic and cultural fronts.
Another work in the exhibition, Tutto è Scritto (Everything is Written), by Italian documentary filmmaker and photographer Marco Pavan, documents Mali’s last known living calligrapher of Islamic script. The film is an exemplary tale of perseverance despite grave odds. It follows the painstaking work of evacuating manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali, after an armed conflict erupted in 2012 that threatened the country’s cultural heritage.
The exhibition, curated by Dr. Filiz Çakir Phillip, blossoms with inter-cultural narratives. In doing so, it seems open to the possibility that, through art, we can imagine a brighter future, one being rebuilt one book at a time.