NOTE: This blog entry was written in February 2009
In his youth, Wafaa Bilal’s art was controversial in his home country of Iraq where his work was often censored for offending those in power. Bilal was born and raised in Najaf where he lost family members to Saddam Hussein’s oppresive regime. He survived Iraq’s long, bloody war with Iran, then as a university student, was expected to fight in Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991. Bilal declined and after the American victory and as Saddam cracked down on the Shia and Kurdish uprisings, Bilal left his family and fled for the Kuwaiti border. He snuck across, was arrested and spent two years in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp. In that tent city in the middle of the desert, Bilal continued making art to maintain his sanity. He slowly built a studio made of mud bricks and sealed the walls with trash bags so the sandstorms wouldn’t ruin his oil paintings. Bilal got out after two years and wound up here in the United States - where some found his art offensive and he was censored by those in power.
Bilal is best known for “Domestic Tension” - a dynamic art installation in a Chicago gallery where he lived for 31 days while online visitors could shoot at him all day and all night with a remote controlled paintball gun. He says he came up with the idea after his brother and father died during the current war in Iraq. Bilal sensed a great disengagement among American citizens about this war being fought on their behalf on the other side of the world, where American soldiers were being killed along with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. So he locked himself in the gallery to illustrate the intersection of conflict zones and comfort zones — to bring the war into our homes. During that month in the art gallery, online visitors fired more than 60,000 yellow paintballs at Bilal, hitting him a few hundred times. There was also a chat room interface where Bilal could talk with those shooting at him and with those trying to protect him.
Wafaa Bilal has written a book about the experience called Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun.