Ark-Raising: the art of pulling together

Ark-Raising: the art of pulling together

In 2017-18, after the founding of Safina Projects CIC, the Ark Re-imagined project grew in scope and became ‘An Ark for Iraq’. No longer just a one-man expedition, but a collaborative art and heritage project involving whole communities.

Energised by his experience of restoring the disappearing craft of Guffa coracle-making in Babylon, Rashad set out to implement a similar process with other traditional boatbuilding communities in different parts of Iraq.

The boat forms were wildly diverse – from the elegant calligraphic curve of the wooden Tarada canoe in the southern marshlands, to the hulking box-like Kaiya (or Isbiya), a frame-built barge from Hit in western Iraq.

Some workshops aimed simply to document endangered knowledge before it vanishes. Others were the start of something longer-term: boats like the Tarada have a compelling beauty that’s inspired artists from prehistory to the 20th century, and attract attention and participation wherever they go, so the potential for reviving their use was clear.  

These differences aside, there were certain ingredients that all the workshops shared.

Firstly, they brought people together and connected generations. The workshops could not have happened without elders, who had once made these boats and still remembered how to build them. But they were now too old to do the work themselves – so a generation of craftsmen who had been brought up with more ‘modern’ (but less locally rooted) methods began to learn the traditions from their elders.

Children and students were fascinated to see what was going on, hear the elders’ stories and help out in the workshops. People of all ages came from near and far to visit the workshops and share their memories and ideas.

The Kaiya workshop, in particular, was a magnet for community gathering, and such a huge boat could only be built through a process known as Fezaa. The closest equivalent in English is ‘barn-raising’, so in the context of our project we might call it Ark-raising.

At the 2021 Biennale Architettura, we discovered via the Philippine pavilion that similar cooperative processes exist all over the world: bayanihan or tulongan are Filipino terms for a system of mutual help, while as their catalogue noted: ‘The Finnish call it talkoot, the Brazilians mutirao, the Mexicans tekia and Kenyans call it harambee, which literally means “all pull together” and it is in the latter country’s coat of arms.’

Furthermore, the workshops revealed the connective fabric of local culture. In building these boats we didn’t just learn about them as objects: we learned about the local materials (from plants to tar) and the ecologies they came from, the regional trading networks, the traditional tools, terminology and songs. In short, the culture which sustained them and which they helped to sustain.

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