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105,000 Tattoos: Iraqi Artist Wafaa Bilal Turns His Own Body into a Canvas to Commemorate Dead Iraqis & Americans

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The official death toll from the war is 100,000, but it is widely estimated to be much higher, perhaps even as high as one million. In his latest piece of artwork, Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal tries to grapple with the enormity of these numbers. It’s a twenty-four-hour live tattooing performance called “…and Counting” that began at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts gallery in New York Monday night. By tonight Bilal’s back will be tattooed with the names of Iraqi cities, 5,000 red dots representing dead American soldiers and 100,000 dots in invisible ink representing the official death toll for Iraqis. The dots representing the Iraqi death toll will only be visible under ultraviolet light. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Iraqis are waiting for the initial results from Sunday’s Parliamentary elections, in which more than 60 percent of the country is estimated to have taken part despite a series of explosions in Baghdad and other attempts to disrupt the vote. General Ray Odierno told reporters the election was a “milestone” on the road to the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

But for many Iraqis, the horror of the war is far from over. The official death toll from the war is 100,000, but it’s widely estimated to be much higher, perhaps even as high as a million. Nearly seven years since the US-led invasion of Iraq, these deaths are never brought up in public American discourse about the Iraq war, and they remain largely invisible to the American public.

Well, in his latest piece of art, Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal tries to grapple with the enormity of the numbers. It’s a twenty-four-hour live tattooing performance called “…and Counting.” It began at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts gallery in New York Monday night. By Tuesday night — that’s tonight — Bilal’s back will be tattooed with the names of Iraqi cities, 5,000 red dots representing dead American soldiers, and 100,000 dots in invisible ink representing the official death toll for Iraqis. The dots representing the Iraqi death toll will only be visible under ultra violet light. Throughout this twenty-four-hour performance that is happening now, visitors are invited to read the names of the dead.

Well, Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat and I interviewed Wafaa Bilal — he’s author of Shoot an Iraqi: Life, Art and Resistance Under the Gun — on Monday. I began by asking him to describe his latest project, “…and Counting.”

    WAFAA BILAL: “…And Counting” is a new project I’m doing, which is using a tattoo as a medium and playing with the idea of visible-invisible issue. You have 5,000 American deaths in Iraq, and you have 100,000 Iraqi deaths, as the consequences of this war. And what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to create something as an engagement. I’m trying to create a platform, a virtual and physical platform, one people could come and even just, as a start, acknowledge the number. The number is just staggering.

    And when I was invited by the Elizabeth Foundation of the Arts to talk about the Iraq issues and the death, I didn’t know — or I didn’t want to create another physical monument that’s going to be abandoned after a few years or few months, few days maybe. And how do you remember human being that’s been killed by an aggression? And what I wanted to do, I wanted to create that monument, when I could carry it with me.

    And what I’m doing is, the entire product is three stages. Stage one, I lay down the Iraqi cities, Iraqi map with no border. Then I am putting 100,000 dots, one dot for each Iraqi, in an invisible ink. It’s not going to be visible unless you have a UV light. And stage three is the 5,000 American deaths going to be on top of the 100,000. So, at the first glance, on my back, you are going to see the Iraqi cities in Arabic and the 5,000 dots that represent American death. And there are different circumstances when you have a UV light. You are going to see the 100,000 dots come to life. And that is examining the issue of Iraqi death is not being visible, is not being acknowledged. And the number, it’s so high we cannot even comprehend.

    With that project, a place and a dot, for each dot, we are — people donating one dollar for Rally for Iraq organization to raise a scholarship money for Iraqi children who lost their parents during this war. And this is just an objective of leaving something tangible, not just the art piece on my back, but also something that’s practical, something that gives hope to the Iraqi generation under this war.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your brother died in Iraq?

    WAFAA BILAL: My brother Haji died in 2004 in a direct air-to-ground missile by American plane in our home town of Kufa.

    AMY GOODMAN: How old was he?

    WAFAA BILAL: He was twenty-eight, was married a year before. And when I received the news, I talked to the family, and they said what happened is he was out on the street when the United States Army was advancing on the city of Kufa, and he was hit.

    I was able to go to Iraq last July and know more about what happened. And what happened is Haji, involved in working as a contractor with Americans. When they came in, people would greet them. They thought, well, this is going to free them from the dictator. But the opposite happened. Americans were in their barricades in their camp, leaving Iraq to disintegrate into a chaos. And at the beginning, Haji helped in supplying just some material for building. And as a consequence, he was labeled as a collaborator by Muqtada al-Sadr. So, for one evening, to show good faith to the people of Kufa and Muqtada al-Sadr, he stood in a checkpoint outside Kufa while Americans were advancing. And at that point, that missile came and struck him, and he died on the spot.

    ANJALI KAMAT: And talk about the piece that his death inspired. “Domestic Tension”?

    WAFAA BILAL: “Domestic Tension.”

    ANJALI KAMAT: But you also wanted to call it “Shoot and Iraqi”?

    WAFAA BILAL: “Shoot an Iraqi.” After I received his death news in 2004, I did not know how to deal with it. And I think when we are in that situation, what we enter, we enter a phase of denial. We didn’t want to acknowledge — I didn’t want toe acknowledge his death. So, for many years, I was thinking about how is it possible you commemorate or you do an art piece to commemorate somebody? And what I came to, in conclusion, in 2007 is, I wanted a piece that connect the comfort zone of United States to the conflict zone of Iraq. And unfortunately, our comfort zone, it create a safe haven for us here in United States, and as a consequence is we are not engaging any dialogue or what — we are not even acknowledging that is a war going on in Iraq.

    So, in 2007, in June — sorry, in January, I saw a TV interview with an American soldier who was directing a drone planes and dropping bomb on Iraq. And when she was asked about whether she feel remorse about the death of Iraqis or what she was doing, she said, “I completely have faith in the information that is being given to me by my superior.” And I was shocked by that interview. And that interview gave me the idea of “Domestic Tension” and “Shoot an Iraqi.” And what I wanted to do, I wanted to give the control of the gun in the hands of people of United States and the rest of the world to shoot an Iraqi. I wanted to use the internet and paintball as a platform.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Explain how it worked. You were in a room? What happened? How did people engage with this?

    WAFAA BILAL: I moved into a room that — it’s about twenty by twenty-five feet. And at the one end of the room, I moved my bed, my desk. And then, at the other end of the room, I build a robot that has a paintball gun. And the robot could be controlled over the internet by people. And I stripped all the information out of the internet. And the idea here, I did not want to right away engage people in a political dialogue, which could alienate them. When they know this is about Iraq, they just like, “Alright, we don’t want to engage.” So I stripped it. And I started the idea of this is just a silly game. A guy locking himself in a room. Who doesn’t want to shoot? And you could shoot him from anywhere in the world.

    So, by bringing people to that virtual platform, I was able to engage them in a true dialogue, because they come with no political agenda to it. And what they face, they face the grainy image of the internet coming to them, because there was a camera on top of the gun, and then a chat room, when they could talk to other people. And sure, one month later, 80 million hits on the website. Sixty-five thousand shots of the paintball were fired at me from 136 countries. And to me, the dialogue it created, that was what I was looking for, is the engagement in the dialogue, not another art piece.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the controversy that just blew up at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, at RPI, Upstate New York?

    WAFAA BILAL: So, in 2008, I was invited to a part of the program that raise awareness about Arabs and Islam at RPI. And I engaged with their students and a few projects, but then, at the end, I was supposed to put a show, and I proposed a show, and the show called “The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi.”

    And what I — I learned about a video game in 2005 called “The Night of Bush Capturing.” And apparently, that video game was released by al-Qaeda. And in the game, it’s a first shooter. In the game, you shoot Americans, and at the end you are face-to-face with President Bush, and you shoot him, you kill him, or could kill you. So I was intrigued by the game, just like we know of al-Qaeda, these guys in caves, introduce a video game, sophisticated as well as the American Army or any games that’s released by the Army to recruit people. I downloaded the game, didn’t know what to do with it, until 2008, when I proposed that show to RPI.

    And what I did, I took the game, I hacked it, and I put myself as the dispensable virtual Jihadi suicide bomber, Iraqi, who was outraged by the death of his brother and then the death of his father, and he decides to become a suicide bomber. But he doesn’t act on his own. The first shooter has to send him to blow himself next to President Bush.

    It didn’t go well. RPI — even though it’s a video game, and everybody understand it’s a video game, RPI and President Shirley Ann Jackson decided to cancel the show. That’s not before the FBI, the CIA and the Homeland Security, all of them, showed up at the opening night.

    What was shocking to me is this: the game was not put out by al-Qaeda. What al-Qaeda did — the game was put out by an American software game developer. And the objective of the original game is to go hunt for Saddam. And in the process, you face Iraqis face to face, and you shoot them. And Iraqis, all of them, have only one face: Saddam face. And then, at the end, you kill Saddam. At that time — that was 2003 — no objection. No objection to the game at all. They’re OK. They’re dispensable. They’re others. You could shoot them. But only when I was able to bring the game I hacked and the game act as a mirror — now the hunter become the hunted — only then it was objectable. Only then people in the United States, officials and some other people, object to the game, because all of the sudden now the gun is turned against us, even it is virtual.

    AMY GOODMAN: So this wasn’t an al-Qaeda game that you downloaded from the internet. This was an American game that was going after Saddam Hussein and any Iraqi having his face.

    WAFAA BILAL: So, after the game was, the original game, called just Saddam — “A Quest for Saddam” was released, what al-Qaeda did, two years later, they went into the asset folder, and they changed the skin. So that was, changing just a simple thing in a game, just the skin, outraged people. And I wanted to bring the dialogue about it. It is not OK. It’s a video game. You say it’s a video game. So why my video game was not OK, if you said this is OK? It’s just a video game kids play. But it’s not. When you subject other culture in the torture in even in a simple thing as a video game, what you’re doing, you are brainwashing youth and tell them it is OK to attack other culture.

    ANJALI KAMAT: You grew up in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Talk about the kind of art you produced in Iraq under Saddam, and describe the atmosphere of growing up in Iraq under Saddam.

    WAFAA BILAL: I grew up like many Iraqis. At the beginning, when the revolution took place, everybody was happy, thought finally Iraq going to be for Iraqis, not for another foreign entity. But slowly, unfortunately, Saddam took over. And by the age of thirteen or so, Iran-Iraq War started, when Saddam attacked Iran, and that war lasted about eight years. During that time, freedom was confiscated. And as a young kid, I slowly start seeing how oppressed the entire society is.

    And slowly I start engaging in political dialogue, but through the medium of art. And I kept producing artwork that is critical of the regime, at the beginning was just photographing neighborhood and then painting them realistically and showed them. That didn’t go well, because the regime did not want that picture to be broadcasted. They didn’t want that to show the other side of destroyed Iraq. Then I slowly start moving into more abstract artwork, when really not even painting, just taking chains and rub just them around the canvas and put them up. And that didn’t go very well, as well.

    ANJALI KAMAT: What was the reaction of the regime?

    WAFAA BILAL: The reaction, they would send two or three people to escort me either outside the school or escort me to the security office which was on campus. And by the way, there was a security office on campus on every campus and one to two people in every classroom watching the rest of us. And sometimes an entire show would disappear. I would come back to the gallery, and there is none left of the show. And then I have to go and be interrogated for an entire day, answering the regime’s questions on the nature of the show. Unfortunately — fortunately, abstract work become — it has this duality, when we could just say, no, it doesn’t mean this, it means this.

    ANJALI KAMAT: And describe how and why you left Iraq.

    WAFAA BILAL: So, the last thing — the last trouble I got into the regime of Saddam, it was 1991. Saddam invaded Kuwait. And at that year, in the fall of that year, the regime came to schools to ask us to volunteer to go to Kuwait and fight. I was one of the students who was — who disagreed. But I was the one, and with other people, who stood and said, “No, I don’t believe this. I am not going to volunteer.” And I know, from that moment, I was blacklisted and I had to be on the run.

    So I start running from Baghdad, made it to Najaf. And that’s now ’91, when an uprising took place after the Gulf War. And during that uprising, unfortunately, the United States gave the green light for Saddam to crush the uprising. And again, I was on the move, and I did not stop until I reach the border with Kuwait, when I stayed there with American troops for forty-five days before I was transferred to Saudi Arabia refugee camp for two years. And fortunately, after that, I was able to come to the United States.

    So, a lot of it, it was — a lot of the work of the early period in the United States reflective of my disenchantment with the Saddam regime, but also with American government and how they kept an eight-year or more — an embargo on Iraqi people, which destroyed whatever left after the Kuwait war.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Would you describe yourself as a political artist?

    WAFAA BILAL: I think all art is political. It’s just a matter of what we are meditating on. Even the fact that is a person refused to do political art, that is a political move. And I think it depends where we are. And what I mean by that, art is meditation. You could meditate on aesthetic, but also you could meditate on pain. And unfortunately, I’m not privileged or in a position to meditate on aesthetic, when I could withdraw myself from the political dialogue to my studio and I meditate on aesthetic. So, until that change, I am — I have to engage myself and others, during art, in a political dialogue, which is very necessary.

    ANJALI KAMAT: And how do see the role of art, more generally, both in Iraq, growing up under Saddam Hussein, in Iraq today, and now in the United States?

    WAFAA BILAL: Art is a powerful medium. It engages people. And I think that’s what we need, you know. It depends on — it really doesn’t matter what medium you decide to use. I think the objective is to engage people. But now more than ever, artists have a lot more powerful tools to play with, since the playing field has been leveled. And what I mean by that, art does not have to be confined to a physical space, the gallery or museums, but now we have the power of the internet, when we could enter people’s homes and offices and engage them in the dialogue. Art is not only there to educate. Art is there to agitate, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal. You can watch the art display at wafaabilal.com.

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