Ark Re-imagined: the Expeditionary Pavilion


In 2021 Iraq participates for the first time ever in the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, with artist Rashad Salim’s project ‘Ark Re-imagined: the Expeditionary Pavilion’. This year also marks the Centenary of the founding of the modern state of Iraq. Curated by Safina Projects, and with Community Jameel and CULTURUNNERS supporting production as piloti del padiglione (pavilion pilots), the pavilion returns to the origins of Iraq’s architectural legacy, celebrating the vernacular architecture and watercraft of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, and the seminal ‘alphabet of making’ from which early architecture emerged.

Challenging standardised images of the Ark based on European boat-building techniques, Salim proposes ‘an Ark of its time and place’: an organic, tensile-built structure, its design derived from the vernacular construction techniques and boat types attributable to the period of the ancient Flood, a rise in sea level around 10,000 years ago that created what we know as the Gulf.

Rashad Salim’s ‘expeditionary art’ practice employs the concept of the Ark as a means of enquiry into Iraq’s material cultural heritage. Since 2016, the Ark Re-imagined project has engaged artisans across central, southern and western Iraq to revive and document what remains of traditional boatbuilding, architecture and craft practices. This heritage, sustained since earliest recorded history, has been brought to the brink of extinction during recent decades of devastating conflict and trauma.

Through outdoor installations and digital elements, the Expeditionary Pavilion will engage dynamically with its location, exploring links between Venice’s delta wetland environment and proud boating traditions, and those of Basra and the Ahwar (marshlands) of southern Iraq. Like Venice, southern Iraq now faces the critical challenge of the Anthropocene, a climate event comparable to the ancient Flood. Ark Re-imagined addresses the crises of our time through enquiring into the transformative processes that shaped human culture and remain urgently relevant to our fragile future.

The mission of the project is to gather resources and people and convene cross-cultural dialogue. Rashad Salim comments “The Ark Re-imagined addresses the title of this year’s Biennale Architettura – "How will we live together?" – by applying the principle of gathering. This Ark centres on a geometric pattern that is ubiquitous in nature and science. An amulet based on this pattern called the seba’ayoun is given to newborn children throughout Iraq as a blessing. The Ark Re-imagined project was inspired by this pattern of unity and aims to revive and protect its culture of origin.”

The pavilion and documentation of the project are supported by the Iraq Cultural Health Fund created by Community Jameel and CULTURUNNERS within The Future is Unwritten Artists’ Response Fund, a new initiative to provide financial and production support to artist-led projects that contribute to improved mental, social and environmental health in the wake of COVID-19. The pavilion programme is being developed in conversation with the Healing Arts initiative, launched in partnership with the WHO Foundation under the auspices of the World Health Organization, as part of the United Nations 75th Anniversary Program (UN75). In 2020 Ark Re-imagined project was officially recognised by UN75 as an exemplar of an artist-led project implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
George Richards, Director of Community Jameel comments, “This exhibition and the broader Ark Re-Imagined programme reach deep into Iraq’s past while tackling very immediate problems, exacerbated by the pandemic, of trauma, loss of identity, and isolation. As piloti del padiglione, Community Jameel is proud to be part of this expeditionary pavilion and to be exploring innovative approaches to document and sustain Iraqi cultural practices in order to strengthen mental health resilience.”

Pavilion production is co-funded by ALIPH Foundation, while project research and programme content have been supported by funders including Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Arab Council for the Social Sciences, Makiya-Kufa Charity, the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund in partnership with DCMS, and Nahrein Network.

The pavilion’s inaugural event in Venice is a conversation with Rashad Salim hosted by TBA21-Academy at Ocean Space on May 20.

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