3rdi by Wafaa Bila

How did political oppression impact your art practice?

by Wafaa Bilal

I was born in Iraq on June 10, 1966. Because a member of my family had been accused of disloyalty to my country, I was denied the opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming an artist. Instead, I was to attend college to major in geography. While in college, I continued to pursue my art and was arrested for my political artwork against Sadaam Hussein. Shortly after the Gulf War, I was inspired by President Bush’s message to the Iraqi citizens that if they attempted to overthrow Sadaam, the U.S. would stand behind them. I became involved in organizing opposition to the government and was scheduled for arrest and execution when I escaped into Kuwait. There I was accused of being a spy and was close to being shot when my student ID convinced them I told the truth. I was sent to a refugee camp on the Kuwaiti border and lived there for forty days.

After forty days, I was transferred with other people to another refuge camp in Saudi Arabia where I spent the next two years. In the camp, people laughed when — rather than accept life in a tent — I began forming adobe bricks that I dried in the sun and fashioned them into a home/studio. The adobe served a practical purpose, it provided relative safety from abduction by Saudi soldiers, who would sneak into tents in the middle of the night to kidnap young people for sale to Iraqi soldiers who tortured and executed them. Also, the studio became a center for creative minds to gather and it gave us hope when we had lost all hope.

For the next two years, I lived in limbo not knowing if each day would be my last. I worked to improve my art, cleaning toilets, and collecting trash in the camp to earn the money for art supplies. I would buy supplies for children for art therapy to help them work through the horrors they witnessed. My experiences developed within me an abhorrence of violence and oppression and strengthened my inner resolve.

In 1992, I was able to leave the camp for the United States. I remember the first thing I did was visit the art school at the University of New Mexico. After a positive meeting with the academic adviser, I knew I had to overcome my first obstacle, the English language. I began taking classes to learn the language. I knew if opportunities are doors the language was the key to unlock those doors. I began to study art at the University of New Mexico as a part time student. Then I was admitted to the school to graduate in 1999 with a BFA in Art Studio. In 2001, I was accepted to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Art and Technology program. I am now teaching at that institution. My art is of a political nature that speaks to the oppression of the human spirit. It is because I have faith in the power of people to break their own chains that I work through my art to foster in the viewer a sense of self-empowerment to effect change.

Wafaa Bilal, Instructor, Art and Technology Studies; Photography (2004). BA, Geography and Geology, 1990, University of Baghdad, Iraq; BFA, summa cum laude, 1999, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; MFA, 2003, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Co-founder/co-director: Crudeoils.us exhibition web-space. Exhibitions: ASA Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; University of Baghdad, Iraq; Genesis Art Gallery, Chicago; Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts, NM.

This article originally appeared on Chicago Artists Resource.

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