The sober yet expectant atmosphere of a rich archive, brimming with objects that point to numerous riveting stories, greeted visitors to this exhibition at the Graham Foundation. An array of documents were displayed within austere spaces, mostly photographs by Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji, curated from his extensive collection previously deposited at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut (now at MIT) (Figure 1). The photographs, amassed by Chadirji over several decades, capture his design work from 1952 to 1978, alongside various aspects of Iraq's cultural life—rituals, crafts, and spaces—as well as his social circle and travels. The stark presentation of the images suggested a minimum mediation between the archive and the visitor, giving the intricate details, enigmatic figures, and unfamiliar landscapes a striking impact.
The selection for this exhibition—focused primarily on architectural projects and urban scenes—was similar to that for the first iteration of the show at Columbia University's Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, held earlier the same year, but filled a larger space at the Graham Foundation's Madlener House. The material was generously displayed in four rooms on two floors, an impressive volume dedicated to a subject that many visitors were encountering for the first time. This expansive scale contrasted sharply with the intimacy of the displayed archival pages, each featuring a few small photographs.
On the ground floor, visitors circulated around Chadirji's photographs mounted on freestanding skeletal structures, while his larger limited-edition etchings of projects, printed in 1984, were wall mounted. On the second level, Chadirji's photographs were carried away from the walls by similarly delicate armatures. A selection of fellow Iraqi photographer Latif Al-Ani's photographs, also held by the Arab Image Foundation, were shown on the upper level, but mounted directly on walls.
While the majority of the photographs featured buildings and vistas in Baghdad and other locations in Iraq, a series of images capturing the demolition of various Baghdadi neighborhoods were emphasized. Chadirji recorded the destruction, particularly in the early 1980s, that gave way to new developments like the vast public housing complex on Haifa Street. And although the curators tactfully eschewed weaving a narrative out of the material, preferring instead to offer a candid encounter with the archive, visitors soon discovered that this destruction was the tacit overarching theme. Indeed, the exhibition's text emphatically foregrounded the notion of precariousness. The architect, the text postulated, was presumably aware of Iraq's political and cultural instability, and anticipated greater catastrophes to come. His photographs were meant as documents that could survive Iraq's volatility, thus becoming grim signifiers of both past instability and the ongoing devastation in Iraq and the region. This implied vulnerability was carried through to the exhibition design, as the skeletal armatures conjured the fragility of this precious archive and the elusive reality it supposedly denoted.
Between the astute exhibition design and the underlined turmoil, however, a critical dimension was inadvertently obscured: the emphasis on calamities and precariousness overlooked the vibrant culture that perseveres in Iraq and its diaspora. Furthermore, the blunt presentation of archival material communicated more than the exhibition had intended. The architect, the body of work depicted, and the city's built environment—like most aspects of Iraq's cultural and spatial history in the second half of the twentieth century—remain woefully under studied. Chadirji did his part decades ago, with his intuitive documentary sensibility, providing raw material for future histories of his time. This lent the exhibition its expectant quality, as though the material beckoned viewers to fulfill its creator's original desires. To confront these images was to recognize the multiple histories yet to be written, or already lost. Therefore, the perceived vulnerability was a brilliant observation, but perhaps a misplaced one.
The visitor was left confounded by the encounter with this enigmatic material. Chadirji's photographs are certainly invaluable objects, but even relics are usually presented in a manner that conveys a narrative about how they relate to each other, or how they are enmeshed in narratives familiar to the viewer—stories that make those artifacts comprehensible and relatable. The images displayed, however, inadvertently became floating signifiers, referring to a past but not to a history. Moreover, the images, which were meant to convey destruction, actually connoted a historical vacuum. Rather than suggestive objects through which a visitor could connect to stories that humanized the context, they represented debris, to use Walter Benjamin's haunting allegory from his theses on the philosophy of history—pieces of wreckage waiting to be salvaged and deciphered. Perhaps the exhibition unconsciously meant to communicate this tragedy, to place the visitor in the position of the angel of history contemplating a lamentable pile from the past. The dots were yet to be connected, and a plot was far from being discerned. The most outrageous violence to which the exhibition pointed was, therefore, not the physical loss that befell Baghdad and its built form but an ongoing injustice inflicted on this context—namely, the fact that thinkers and scholars have not fully engaged with the great cultures that unfolded during the region's recent past.
By evoking this missing dimension, these lost histories and their significance to architectural culture and to contemporaneous developments, the exhibition represented a big leap forward. In an increasingly divided world, the inclusive gesture of a large exhibition about an Iraqi architect was an act of intrepid speculation and reassessment—a poignant invitation to examine figures and places that made vital contributions to post–World War II architecture. The Graham Foundation celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2016 by honoring its mission of fostering diverse architectural ideas and cultures. With such projects, underrepresented aspects of global and cross-cultural exchanges are finally receiving the attention they deserve, which should in turn lead to further interest and rigorous scholarship. While this is late in comparison to the extensive existing knowledge on European and American histories, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.