Politics as Currency and the Souvenirs of War: Reflections on Rijin Sahakian’s Statement on the Closing of Sada for Iraqi Art

Along with each feature, we wish to introduce contemptorary artists, writers, interventions, and interruptions that intrigue and inspire us. For our first feature, we picked Rijin Sahakian’s statement ”On the Closing of Sada for Iraqi Art.” We both thought it was the most urgent piece of writing we had interacted with in the past year. We highly encourage our readers to read her statement in full, as it is going to provide much necessary context for the conversation that follows.


In the statement, Sahakian describes the process of building Sada, and her decision to close the organization in 2015:


“Sada will be suspending its work as a formal project…Those who are responsible for and profit from a country’s undoing also sponsor, applaud and exhibit works produced from the wretched conditions they themselves have helped sow. These endeavors are supported by an array of curators, arts writers, and financial and public relations systems that comprise the arts industrial complex.”


Rarely are we confronted by the amalgamated consequences of US and allied military, US weapons, and the weaponization of “culture” the way Sahakian describes in her piece. Often we are left with justifications regarding the inevitability of multinational, multi-corporate, private or public collaborations, and they echo the usual: the world is better with art, art brings capital which will bring prosperity, culture is the experiment towards peace, so forth. We were shocked and enthralled with the energy with which Sahakian pushed back against the “inevitable” that’s so often argued for in art circles. Her uncompromising approach to politics, finance, and art made us want to learn more about her process, projects and about how we might support her future  endeavors.


We wanted to know what the reception had been to her closing statement. How a visionary curator of many years, a profound writer and singular thinker came to the decision to halt her organization. We were intrigued by her choice of disengagement as the most appropriate response to an arts environment unremoved from the military-industrial complex and neocolonialism. A year after the publication of her statement, the three of us met on Google Hangouts where we asked Sahakian about the interactions that had been created for her since the publication of her statement, and her thoughts moving forward.


In her book, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s, Chin-Tao Wu researches the rapid privatization of cultural institutions. She argues that private corporations  “have also successfully transformed art museums and galleries into their own public-relations vehicles, by taking over the function, and by exploiting the social status, that cultural institutions enjoy in our society.” Wu’s thesis regarding the metamorphosis of public institutions as mechanisms of image relations for private corporations are mirrored in Sahakian’s critique and her refusal to mix: the military-industrial complex, the US nation state, Iraq—and the art space serving as its polite society meeting grounds. These art spaces are afforded funding and “luxury branding” while little funding goes toward much needed infrastructure and aid. The links that Sahakian draws between the military and corporate marriages in Iraq that at once fund arms deals and military states, while “they use art to deflect their involvement in the devastation” show a connected problem occurring worldwide, expanding our view of the larger picture of the militarization of culture under neoliberalism.


The Sada statement remarks that “There is a dangerous amount of funding for local and international Middle Eastern art shows, publications and initiatives funded through monies accumulated via arms sales, violence, and corrupt politicsadministered to use the work of artists to further collections and social standing.” In regards to funding and research, we wanted to know how Sahakian investigated the funding. Here are excerpts of what she shared with us.


Rijin Sahakian: The research was mostly pulled from personal experience and readily available information. At a talk I prepared for Home Works 7 in Beirut last fall, I provided a few specific examples. Some of these are slightly hidden but most are very transparent. For instance, if you visit the website of the US embassy in Baghdad, there are all kinds of fellowships and exchange programs, particularly in the arts. However, there is virtually no funding to strengthen infrastructure in the country itself.


Cultural diplomacy is this pseudo-mannered veneerit’s actually so clumsily done it can hardly be called a veneer, more a lucrative sideshow to the blockbuster military/ corporate forces that have never been more destructive, particularly in the Middle East. Our newsfeed every day is full of articles about how we’ve never lived in more stratified times. X number of people own more than half of the world’s wealth, etc. Our schools, our water, our food, our health care are being privatized, with no accountability, no consequences. None of this is hidden at all, it’s just a matter of how we respond. Militarization, control, and surveillance are not the future, it is here, and it is being openly celebrated , openly legislated as status quo.


What Sahakian is describing regarding cultural diplomacy and “transparency” has been the official position of the US government. The 2005 US Department of State’s Report of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy states:  

“In the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and the controversy over the handling of detainees at Bagram and Guantánamo Bay, America is viewed in much of the world less as a beacon of hope than as a dangerous force to be countered. This view diminishes our ability to champion freedom, democracy, and individual dignity—ideas that continue to fuel hope for oppressed peoples everywhere. The erosion of our trust and credibility within the international community must be reversed if we hope to use more than our military and economic might in the shaping of world opinion. Culture matters.

Cultural diplomacy reveals the soul of a nation, which may explain its complicated history in American political life. When our nation is at war, every tool in the diplomatic kit bag is employed, including the promotion of cultural activities. But when peace returns, culture gets short shrift, because of our traditional lack of public support for the arts. Now that we are at war again, interest in cultural diplomacy is on the rise. Perhaps this time we can create enduring structures within which to practice effective cultural diplomacy and articulate a sustaining vision of the role that culture can play in enhancing the security of this country. And if, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggests, America’s involvement in Iraq requires “a generational commitment,” then our cultural diplomacy efforts require a similar commitment of funds, expertise, courage, and time. [emphases ours.]


Cultural diplomacy, of course, is not “mutually beneficial” nor is it neutral. The flow of products as well as the flow of capital are colonially fixed routes. Sahakian describes the connection between cultural diplomacy, exchange and preservation as a part of making “new” markets. She also shared with us in particular her concerns for the connection between mobility, the military, biennales, art fairs, and “art objects.”


RS: A lot of the examples in my research are geared at biennales and art fairs in the Middle East that are supposedly discussing topics such the geopolitics of the region, exile, refugee crisis, etc. When a region gets “represented,” it’s mostly by people with dual citizenships and two passports, some whom haven’t lived in the place being “represented” in years, or who are living in a much more privileged reality. Many of those experiencing crises don’t have the opportunity to make the artworks because they are the ones being directly impacted by those crises.They are more likely to experience travel restrictions, economic hardships, language barriers, and very simply, trauma.


This is something I bring up because the hypocrisy and the language around that kind of workthis kind of “place-making” work, is not productive. The point isn’t that those with two passports shouldn’t make work, or that that kind of binary would even be useful. Rather, work must be produced, and presented with a certain awareness so that it is not used as a mechanism to exploit a terrain further, using violence to create new markets of collecting and generating wealth. Cooperating with the same financial backers and politicians investing in the dismantling of these areas allows them to ascribe a value to the kind of “disaster art” that emerges as a trade-off. And even more crudely, these auctions, openings, and fairs become a public site for their celebrated acceptance and quite grotesquely, seen as a platform for “civilized” discourse.  


I’ve brought up several times, John Kerry’s speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was staged to announce a new campaign against ISIS. Standing in front of Egyptian and Assyrian reliefs, he spoke about the cultural destruction wrought by ISIS (which is of course a very real issue, the destruction of artifacts and of life), and tied it to the announcement that the US would be embarking on a bombing campaign. Nowhere was there any discussion of the parts of Babylon that had already been destroyed by the US Military building a base on its ruins, the exact kind of works that he was standing in front of and making the case for the war on ISIS.


The actors of destruction are the same actors of preservation. How might the museum and art space be reimagined not as the repository of souvenirs of war and colonialism, or as a meeting place for brutal militarization and privatization effortsbut something else? We asked Sahakian what she has been working or not working on since the closing of Sada.


RS: When I ended Sada I took a step back. There are definitely ways that I had participated in all of this and I have my questions about it. How do you continue and do work that is useful? I haven’t been completely sure about that. I don’t want to collaborate or show work in the Gulf states, so vociferously lauded for its arts platforms while crushing culture in much of the Middle East, from its wars in Yemen to spearheading logistical support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor do I want to work within the massively corrupt ecosystem in Iraq. I suppose I’m processing the links in my experiences in the arts and its intractable ties to political and personal shifts.And now I am back in the US. I wonder how we can have a war with Iraq for 25 years and people still don’t know what language people speak or even that the war is still ongoing. But at the same time, there is a blackout on so much happening in America itself. You can’t understand America’s actions overseas if you don’t understand how this destruction of neighborhoods, people, and identities is a practice of the United States. That’s also become a factor of my research that wasn’t as present before. What’s been happening in the States in the past couple of years and the visual violence, especially in terms of movements like #BlackLivesMatter. What that came out of is very reminiscent to me when seeing the visual imagery of the attacks in Iraq and people’s reactions to them.


I was thirteen when I watched the first bombs hit Baghdad on CNN, live in color for audiences to consume. At thirty-six I have the same feeling watching videos of police killing men and women on television. That feeling of sick dread, of realizing that this is on TV so that viewers can assume that those being killed and brutalized deserve it somehow, because it is being shown on television not as a tragedy, but as a show of might. As a show of what one side is capable of, and of course, the viewer does not want to be on the side that is not capable of defending itself, of being powerless. And so, it becomes just simply easier to assume that they are guilty, whether it is a twelve-year-old Black kid with a toy gun or an entire nation. Today [February 19] is the anniversary of the order to create Japanese internment camps in America. How many people today even know about this? And the examples go on and on.


Rijin Sahakian is a writer and arts organizer. She received her MA in art and public policy from New York University and directed Sada, a nonprofit project conducting arts education and production programs for Baghdad-based artists, until its closure in spring 2015. She has contributed writing to various artist projects and publications, taught and produced work at various arts and education institutions. Most recently Sahakian was a visiting faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts and guest curator at the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs where she organized the 2014/15 exhibition, Shangri La: Imagined Cities, and accompanying critical reader/catalog.