On Tuesday, May 11th, poet and activist Beau Beausoleil joined Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies Mona Damluji, Middle Eastern Studies librarian Heather Hughes, and Ph.D. candidate Rachel Winter for a conversation about the virtual exhibition Shadow and Light: Honoring Iraqi Academics, hosted by the UCSB Library. Shadow and Light memorializes Iraqi academics assassinated in Iraq between 2003 and 2012, a period roughly correlating to the US invasion of Iraq. Project participants selected a name from a list of academics, each accompanied by a varying amount of biographical information, wrote a brief reflection, and captured a photograph without people or animals as a meditation on life lost. Shadow and Light extends from its parent project Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, which was formed in response to the 2007 car bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street, a hub for bookselling in Baghdad.
The panel was a compelling opportunity to learn about the project’s origins, which exists in many forms beyond this exhibition, such as books and broadsides. Beau recalls hearing news of the 2007 bombing. He noticed that people around him in the Bay Area were not responding to this horrific act of violence, prompting him to take action. As a bookseller, Beau recognizes that those on al-Mutanabbi street are his community; if he were in Iraq, that would be the place of his bookstore. Beau recognizes lives lost, and in turn, breaks down the gulf between booksellers and people near and far. By creating space for contemplation through photographs, the exhibition advocates for slow looking, prompting us to shift away from hurried glances at conflict and violence towards a more measured approach that encourages audiences to ruminate on the photographs and the lives they honor. Implicitly, this is a call to reject conflict as a spectacle, and to move towards the intimate subjectivities of loss.
An important topic that emerged during the conversation was the project’s intentions. Importantly, it is not a project of pity, but rather, one of memory. The project is not meant to speak for the Iraqi people, but rather, to show that we see them and hear them, and to remind people Iraqis have their own voice. The project does not have goals, as Beau emphatically iterates, but rather, has many “arms” that continue to reach out and draw attention to the consequences of violence and trauma. For scholars and audiences alike, Beau’s reflections are a reminder to think about the ways we discuss acts of violence, and the positionalities from which we speak or write.
Like Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, Shadow and Light is also a project of witness, memory, and solidarity. These core concepts set out at the project’s inception are increasingly relevant for our era, making the panel a timely moment to think about the ways we support and honor those fighting for self-determination. Now more than ever, these projects and conversations should cause us to think about how we witness, memorialize, and take action to stand in solidarity with those fighting for survival today.
By Rachel Winter (PhD Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, UC Santa Barbara)