Expeditionary art and the search for home

Expeditionary art and the search for home

“Home was the centre of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one. The vertical line was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places.”
-      John Berger, ‘And our faces, my heart, brief as photos’

After launching the Ark Re-imagined as an art project in 2015, Rashad Salim took a leap of faith: returning to Iraq after living in other countries for over 30 years.

In 2016 he spent more than half the year there, on a series of a field trips. His mission was to track down the last remnants of ancient cultural practices that could have built the Ark. It was also, fundamentally, to reconnect with home.

He carried with him drawings of the Ark Re-imagined, developed with young architects Khalid Ramzi and Rand al-Shakarchi, and a folder of print-outs of black-and-white archival photographs of ancient boat forms that were still widespread until the mid-20th century: Guffa coracles, Kelek rafts, Meshouf canoes, Shasha reed boats, Isbiya barges.

The knowledge he sought wasn’t limited to boats, but everything an Ark dweller would need: reed architecture, ropes, adobe ovens, water vessels made from gourds or ceramics, palm fans, woollen blankets.

In the course of the year, he visited and photographed palm furniture makers and rug collectors, master builders constructing Mudhifs (reed houses), weavers, palm orchard keepers.

He commissioned 7 km of palm fibre rope to be made at the oasis of Ain al-Tamur; held rug design workshops with the women embroiderers of Samawa; bought a full edition of the anthropological journal al-Turath al-Shabi from a bookseller on Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad; and built the first model of the Ark Re-imagined with a community of Marsh Arabs who had been displaced from their marshland home to Babylon.

Perhaps his proudest achievement of this period was reviving the craft of Guffa coracle-making in Babylon, having tracked down an old woman who was the last Guffa-maker in the area, but hadn’t made one since the 2003 invasion and had recently suffered a stroke. Commissioning a series of Guffas to be made (with her guidance) by her former assistants, Rashad documented each stage: a spiral coil basket made with bundles of grass wrapped in palm leaves; bracing the inside with pomegranate wands; tarring inside and out.

Being an autodidact and self-commissioned (initial funding for these trips came from sales of artworks) gave him the freedom to explore and to imagine. The biggest shock from this scoping period was how fast the crafts were disappearing. The urgent need to keep ancient traditions alive gave birth to our organisation, Safina Projects, and the next stage of the project.

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