Wafaa Bilal

b. 1966

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Born in Iraq, Bilal emigrated to the U.S. in 1992, where he obtained a B.F.A. at the University of New Mexico and an M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2007, his interactive performance Domestic Tension gained critical acclaim when he spent a month living in a gallery under fire from a paintball gun. In 2008, his book Shoot an Iraqi was published by City Lights. Other projects include 3rdi (2010), in which a camera was surgically implanted to the back of his head, and and Counting (2010), for which his back was tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq and over 20,000 dots in UV ink representing civilian casualties from the Iraq War.

He currently lives and works as an Associate Arts Professor at New York University. His work is represented in major public collections, including Mathaf: the Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar; Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA), California; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. He has served on the panels of the Tate Modern; Harvard University; Stanford University; Museum of Art and Design, NY; and the Global Art Forum, Qatar. His work has been reviewed in Art in America, The New York Times, ARTnews and The Wall Street Journal.

My work is informed by the experience of growing up and fleeing my homeland in Iraq as well as existing simultaneously between two worlds: the sphere of privilege and relative comfort in the U.S. and the zone of instability and conflict where my family remains in Iraq. These paradigms of conflict and comfort support an unstable binary that disconnects individuals from each other and desensitizes them to the struggles of others. Achieving a resolution between the two drives much of the impetus behind my work.

Thus I perceive the artist’s role as that of an initiator—one who establishes a platform of engagement between viewers who actively participate in the work and contribute collectively to its narrative. Since 2007, I have been crafting these platforms of engagement using network technologies, robotics, and mobile mapping to provoke dialogue on international politics and the effects of warfare on individuals and society.

In an increasingly interconnected world, my work emphasizes viewers who are empowered as autonomous participants and who shape the initiated platform into multiple branching and rhizomatic narratives. Each individual’s autonomous participation contributes to a more deeply personal encounter, whose experience re-engages their desensitized psyches with the realities of war.

In such a complex landscape of unmanned conflicts and rapidly shifting technological frameworks, the dichotomy of pure pleasure in aesthetics is a privilege difficult to justify. In my work, aesthetic pleasure instead operates as a strategy, enticing viewers to move closer, to engage within the platform, and to allow it to unfold with frisson and multidimensional tension. Ensnaring viewers within such tension activates the viewer’s agency further as a sense of micro-community begins to develop in response.

Lovely Pink: Victory of Samothrace

Wafaa Bilal

2015 Cold cast resin, enamel paint, shrink-wrap and crude oil 10.5 x 5.5 x 5.5 inches Courtesy of Wafaa Bilal

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Wafaa Bilal

b. 1966

Born in Iraq, Bilal emigrated to the U.S. in 1992, where he obtained a B.F.A. at the University of New Mexico and an M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2007, his interactive performance Domestic Tension gained critical acclaim when he spent a month living in a gallery under fire from a paintball gun. In 2008, his book Shoot an Iraqi was published by City Lights. Other projects include 3rdi (2010), in which a camera was surgically implanted to the back of his head, and and Counting (2010), for which his back was tattooed with a borderless map of Iraq and over 20,000 dots in UV ink representing civilian casualties from the Iraq War.

He currently lives and works as an Associate Arts Professor at New York University. His work is represented in major public collections, including Mathaf: the Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar; Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA), California; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. He has served on the panels of the Tate Modern; Harvard University; Stanford University; Museum of Art and Design, NY; and the Global Art Forum, Qatar. His work has been reviewed in Art in America, The New York Times, ARTnews and The Wall Street Journal.

My work is informed by the experience of growing up and fleeing my homeland in Iraq as well as existing simultaneously between two worlds: the sphere of privilege and relative comfort in the U.S. and the zone of instability and conflict where my family remains in Iraq. These paradigms of conflict and comfort support an unstable binary that disconnects individuals from each other and desensitizes them to the struggles of others. Achieving a resolution between the two drives much of the impetus behind my work.

Thus I perceive the artist’s role as that of an initiator—one who establishes a platform of engagement between viewers who actively participate in the work and contribute collectively to its narrative. Since 2007, I have been crafting these platforms of engagement using network technologies, robotics, and mobile mapping to provoke dialogue on international politics and the effects of warfare on individuals and society.

In an increasingly interconnected world, my work emphasizes viewers who are empowered as autonomous participants and who shape the initiated platform into multiple branching and rhizomatic narratives. Each individual’s autonomous participation contributes to a more deeply personal encounter, whose experience re-engages their desensitized psyches with the realities of war.

In such a complex landscape of unmanned conflicts and rapidly shifting technological frameworks, the dichotomy of pure pleasure in aesthetics is a privilege difficult to justify. In my work, aesthetic pleasure instead operates as a strategy, enticing viewers to move closer, to engage within the platform, and to allow it to unfold with frisson and multidimensional tension. Ensnaring viewers within such tension activates the viewer’s agency further as a sense of micro-community begins to develop in response.

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  • Born: Iraq
  • Based: New York, NY, USA

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