“Throughout history, culture has often been targeted during times of conflict. Monuments, architecture, libraries and works of art have been subject to systematic damage and destruction in an attempt to erase knowledge and artistic achievements. As this installation attests, recent conflicts in Iraq and Mali offer devastating examples. History presents many others: from the Imperial Library of Constantinople (1204), to China’s Old Summer Palace (1800-60), Warsaw’s Old Town (1939), the National Library Sarajevo (1992), to the ancient city of Palmyra (2015). https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/exhibitions/168-01-A-Library-Rising-from-the-Ashes-Wafaa-Bilal Paradoxically, what makes cultural heritage so vulnerable to attack is its inherent power. It holds collective memory and shapes identity, reminding us of who we are and why we are here. Efforts to protect and rebuild this heritage are acts of resistance. They are also acts of hope, striving to heal a society by restoring human dignity.
Wafaa Bilal’s contemporary artwork starts out as shelves of blank white books. Over the run of the exhibition, visitors transform the installation – and change the lives of students and faculty at the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts – by donating educational texts. Visit the exhibition or read on to find out how you can participate in social change by helping to rebuild the College’s lost library! MOURNING A 13TH-CENTURY LIBRARY AND REBUILDING A 21ST-CENTURY ONE In 2003, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost their entire library due to looters who set fire to the collection during the invasion of Iraq. More than 70,000 books were destroyed. Fifteen years later, students at the college still have few remnants from which to study. Iraq has a long history of cultural destruction. During the Islamic Golden Age in the 13th century, an invading Mongol army set fire to all the libraries of Baghdad, including the famed House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikma. Legend describes the invaders throwing the Bayt al-Hikma’s entire library into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books for their army to cross. The pages bled ink into the river for seven days (168 hours), at the end of which the books were drained of knowledge.
168:01 refers to the first moment when grief is transformed into a call to action, signaling the beginning of a struggle to move forward from the ashes of ruin. As a monument, 168:01 mourns the loss of the College of Fine Arts Library with a site-specific installation presenting thousands of books of empty pages filling out rows of shelves. Visitors to the installation become participants, linked directly to the students and faculty in Baghdad…”