Exhibit: Iraq: Beyond the Two Rivers

For Immediate Release
MIT Exhibit Iraq: Beyond the Two Rivers

On view October 6, 2023 – November 3, 2023
MIT Keller Gallery, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, 7-408, Cambridge, MA

Cambridge, MA, September 26, 2023 – MIT announced that Iraq: Beyond the Two Rivers, an exhibition curated by Huma Gupta, Assistant Professor in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, is on view at MIT’s Keller Gallery through November 3, 2023. 

Iraq: Beyond the Two Rivers is a transhistorical meditation on architectural ambition, great migrations, urban design, climate change, and the radical promise of other ways of dwelling and building in today’s world. This exhibition is inspired by Dr. Huma Gupta’s fifteen years of architectural research on Iraq for her forthcoming book The Architecture of Dispossession. It puts artworks by renowned contemporary Iraqi artists in conversation with works Gupta commissioned and produced with a team of MIT students. The exhibition takes viewers on a multimedia journey through a video art piece by Sama Alshaibi set in Iraq’s marshes, an animation by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji set in Baghdad’s migrant neighborhoods, film stills from Hussein al-Asadi’s forthcoming documentary, a photograph by Mohanad al-Sudany focused on indigenous buffalo-breeding communities, an architectural model composed of reeds, earth, and cement by Bella Carmelita Carriker, and a large mixed media mural with archival video by Huma Gupta, Hajar Alrifai, and Mahwish Khalil.

On the twentieth anniversary of the 2003 U.S. invasion and the fourth anniversary of the 2019 Tishreen protest movement, it is also necessary to move beyond narratives of conflict to engage with the deeper histories of al-Iraq – a place known by many names such as Sumer, Mesopotamia ‘land between rivers,’ cradle of civilization, site of the great flood, or even the garden of eden. At the heart of its civilizational lore stand two great rivers – Tigris & Euphrates. Their alluvial plains and convergence open to thousands of miles of marshlands abundant with reed, clay, flora, fauna, and trade routes to the Indian ocean, which over 7,000 years ago facilitated early experiments in city-making. However, rapid urbanization and construction of monumental structures like Ziggurats also gave rise to cautionary tales of Great Floods and mass deforestation leading to the near demise of humanity in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Today, however, Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country to extreme temperatures, water scarcity and food shortages. And situated on top of some of the largest oil reserves in the world, Iraq’s marshes and its inhabitants have been targets of ecocide since the 1980s. Iraq’s Water Resources Ministry recently projected that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will run dry within Iraq by 2040 due to the confluence of upstream dams and effects of climate change. Although catastrophe rapidly approaches, this exhibition reminds viewers of other models of care, craft, kinship, wetland stewardship, and interspecies cohabitation that persist and hold the potential to revive this ancient landscape. In the words of Malcom Ferdinand, “To unsettle the Anthropocene announces the search for new sea and land arrangements through which, faced with the storm, it is possible to inhabit the bridge together and to build a world-ship” (Decolonial Ecology, 2022).

About the Curatorial Team

Huma Gupta, Curator
Huma Gupta is Assistant Professor in the Aga Khan Program of Islamic Architecture at MIT. As an architectural historian, urban policy expert, and filmmaker, she specializes in the history and theory of informality, forced migration, and biogenic architecture in the global south. Dr. Gupta's book project The Architecture of Dispossession theorizes the relationship between state-building and dispossession through architectural transformations of migrant reed and clay dwellings in 20th century Iraq. In addition to her academic publications and work on infrastructure projects and municipal planning in Afghanistan and Syria, she is currently producing a feature documentary film titled 'She Was Not Alone' (dir. Hussein al-Asadi) about a nomadic woman fighting to stay with her beloved animals in the rapidly disappearing Iraqi marshes.

Hajar Alrifai, Assistant Curator
Hajar Alrifai is a Syrian-American artist and architectural designer. She received her BArch from the CCNY Spitzer School of Architecture, where she co-founded the student organization Future Architects of the Middle East (F.A.M.E), Mashrabiya, an annual publication, and served as an S. Jay Levy Fellow. Her work has been published in Antidotes I and the New York Review of Architecture. Currently she is a research assistant and SMArchS candidate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. Her research draws from folklore, inherited memory, and oral poetry to tell new stories about the built environment.

About the Artists

Sama Alshaibi
Alshaibi is an Iraqi-Palestinian-American multimedia artist whose photographs and videos situate her own body as a site of performance, considering the social and gendered impacts of war and migration. Her work complicates the coding of the Arab female figure found in the image history of photographs and moving images. Alshaibi’s sculptural installations evoke the body's disappearance and act as counter-memorials to war and forced exile. Alshaibi’s monograph, Sand Rushes In, was published by Aperture, NYC. It features her 8-year Silsila series (debuted at the 55th Venice Art Biennale), which probes the human dimensions of borders, migration, and ecological demise. samaalshaibi.com

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji
Alfraji is an Iraqi multi-media artist, photographer, animator, video producer and installation artist noted for producing "existentialist" works with dark, shadowy figures that speak of human frailty. Al Faraji’s works are very monochromatic and his protagonist is often a black, charcoal figure. The artist’s first encounter with an art form in all black was in his childhood during a holiday called Ashura, a universal day of mourning for Shi’a Muslims. His mother would dip his and his sibling’s clothes in black dye and hang them up to dry, the black drippings staining the ground. The recurrent black figure in Sadik’s works is always in profile view and one-eyed, much like the characters in ancient Sumerian, Greek, and Assyrian art. sadik.nl

Hussein al-Asadi
Al-Asadi is an Iraqi director, producer, and cinematographer. His first short film “Eye of the Mountain” was released in 2019 and premiered at the Ismailia International Film Festival in Egypt. In 2020, he produced and directed his second short documentary film – “She Was Not Alone,” which won several international awards and awards in the Arab world for best documentary short. Al-Asadi is presently developing “She Was Not Alone” into a feature-length documentary project which will premiere in 2024 and is supported by the 80th Venice Film Festival, Doha Film Institute, International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, Close-Up Documentary Lab, Red Sea Film Festival, Arab Funds for Arts and Culture, El Gouna Film Festival, and the Middle East Now Film Festival in Florence.

Mohanad al-Sudany
Al-Sudany was born in the Maysan Governorate of Iraq. He began taking photographs at the age of fifteen, and discovered a passion for photographing the marshes which later became his profession. As a cinematographer he has worked on more than thirty productions, spanning shorts, features, fiction, and documentary. His work has received 21 photography and cinema awards, with features in international festivals and exhibitions.

Mahwish Khalil
Mahwish Khalil is a SMArchS AKPIA candidate at MIT. She is an architect by profession, having earned her degree from Beaconhouse National University with a Distinction Award. She has previously taught design and history courses at the School of Architecture and Design at IAC Lahore.  She uses various mediums of art and communication to delve into issues of global, cultural and political conflicts in order to investigate solutions with a focus on equity, relationship between culture and evolving identities of cities, collective narratives and spatial memories.

Bella Carmelita Carriker
Bella Carriker is an M.Arch candidate at MIT and holds a BA from Columbia University, where she studied Architecture and Visual Arts. Prior to studying at MIT, she worked for New York architecture offices WORKac and Toshiko Mori Architect, where she managed architectural book and magazine publication, website design, and research on cyclical forest management for new timber constructions.

About the MIT Department of Architecture
The MIT Department of Architecture opened its doors in 1868 as the first Architecture department in the United States. MIT Architecture is currently home to around 250 graduate and undergraduate students. Numbered among the Department’s over 5,000 alumni are Sophia Hayden ’1890, Robert R. Taylor ‘1892, I.M. Pei ‘40, and Charles Correa ‘55. 

About the Keller Gallery at MIT
The Keller Gallery was established in the fall of 2011 with a generous donation of materials and labor in kind from Shawn Keller, principal at C.W. Keller & Associates. The 200 square foot gallery presents faculty, student, and experimental work, including work from alumni and friends.

This Exhibition was generously funded by the MIT Department of Architecture, the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, the Art, Culture & Technology Program, and the Aga Khan Documentation Center. Keller Exhibition Team: Amanda Moore, Jim Harrington, Joél Carela, and Jeonghyun Yoon. Special thanks to the MIT Architecture Lectures and Exhibitions Committee. 

Visitor Information
The Keller Gallery at MIT
77 Massachusetts Avenue, Building 7, Room 408, Cambridge, MA 02139
Free and open to the public
Monday through Saturday, 9AM to 6PM

Curator Contact
Huma Gupta
Aga Khan Assistant Professor in Islamic Architecture, MIT Department of Architecture

Media Contact
Joél Carela
Communications Coordinator, MIT Department of Architecture
jcarela@mit.edu/ 617-253-0692