We all know about Zaha, but the role of women in Baghdad’s architecture is greater than you might think
Given her recent work, it’s something of a surprise to learn that Ala Younis has never been to Baghdad. The Kuwait-born artist – and architect – has just opened her exhibition Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad at the Delfina Foundation in London.
The installation comprises her 2015 show Plan for Greater Baghdad that was exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennale, plus a new addition, Plan (fem.) for Greater Baghdad, which was commissioned by the Delfina Foundation and Art Jameel. Both exhibitions focus on the buildings and monuments planned for Baghdad by Iraq’s changing regimes from the 1950s onwards – including Walter Gropius’s Baghdad University and Le Corbusier’s stadium and gymnasium – and how their progress was shaped by political agendas. But whereas the protagonists in the first show were men, in the new work, Younis finds a new narrative thread that draws out the largely untold roles played by women, from the female architect who helped facilitate Gropius’s commission through to Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid.
‘I realised that there are always two narratives, two sides, two images. There is always a duality,’ she says.
‘I’m hoping to tell the same story with the women,’ she adds, describing their stories as ‘hiding in the cracks’. ‘They were all people who had their own lives and dreams that were interrupted.’
Their stories emerge, sometimes just in fragments, through a dense collection of documents, photos and drawings interwoven with a chronological account of the changing political backdrop and its impact on the modern city of Baghdad. Younis has supplemented her investigative research with new, sometimes fictional, strands of narrative, as well as creating a new model of Le Corbusier’s gymnasium populated by female figures whose stories emerged during her research. This contrasts with the original show’s model, which was accompanied by male figures including Saddam Hussein and Corb himself.
This gymnasium is at the heart of the story – photos of the building taken by celebrated Iraqi architect and author Rifat Chadirji were the starting point for Younis’s project. Corbusier was commissioned to design a gymnasium and stadium in 1956 and it was finally built in 1978 and named after Saddam Hussein, who had recently come to power. During the Iraq war, American troops were stationed at the stadium for three years. Now named the Baghdad Gymnasium, the building has returned to its original use.
In this feminist version we meet some of the women who, behind the scenes and sometimes only fleetingly, were involved in the cultural scene that helped shape modern Baghdad. Some were the wives of male protagonists, some were architects (or both), artists, gallery directors and civil servants. Together, their stories form a richer context for the events that shaped the city. There is Ellen Jawdat, an architect who was involved in getting Gropius the commission for Baghdad University. Balkis Sharara, the wife of Chadirji, carried vital manuscripts and drawings in and out of Abu Ghraib prison until he was released because Saddam wanted him to design for his new regime. Azhar Al Karissi was a civil engineer at the Ministry of Transport known as ‘Mrs Iraq Development’ for her important role supervising key development projects such as train stations and airports under Saddam Hussein. She was imprisoned in 1997. An unnamed woman civil servant who revived the idea of building Le Corbusier’s then long-shelved gymnasium is pictured cradling a model of the building. Among the artists who pepper the narrative is Fahrelnissa Zeid, wife of the Iraqi ambassador in London, whose work was exhibited at the Tate last year. There’s also Hadid, whose then largely unbuilt work was highly influential in the Baghdad architectural scene of the 1990s, although her 2011 design for the Central Bank of Iraq has not yet been built.
These women are all represented by Younis as 3D-printed figures around the gymnasium model adopting gestures from figures from the city’s famous modernist Liberty Monument, built to celebrate the establishment of the republic in 1958.
This exhibition is fascinating although it does require close attention – it’s a dense, layered narrative that can be hard to get to grips with for those unfamiliar with the history of the city and the key figures who have shaped it. The artist is considering plans for a book, a format which should serve the material well.
She hopes the new exhibition will give visitors an image of Baghdad that reveals something of the complexities of the city, and the huge impact that the decades of political and military conflict have had on everyday lives.
A further installment may be the offing at some point, possibly on the experiences and influence of the many architects and artists who left Iraq and settled both in London and in Amman in Jordan, where Ala Younis is based.