Auto Mechanics District, Cairo, 2009

Rheim Alkadhi was the first person I met in Los Angeles with the desire and courage to face her longings. I was new there, but had recognized early on that the city urges its people to become actors of who they used to be and forget all about their daily lives. Rheim is somewhere else completely. She makes her art work as if it is something solid enough to live with, while tiny enough to hide.

Bilal: During your journey to Cairo you presented Destroyed in Baghdad/ Repaired in Cairo. I wonder why you chose this theme. How does it relate with Baghdad?

Rheim: The project took place in downtown Cairo’s Auto Mechanics’ District in 2009. During that time, just as the other day, you could see pictures in the news of decimated cars in Iraq, turned into tangles of jutting metal. In Cairo, cars were constantly being repaired. There, mobility was a reasonable expectation and did not seem out of reach. In Iraq, cars so starkly represent the condition of the individual within the culture; they hobble along in an ongoing displacement crisis or they die irreparably.

Bilal: Do you think we cannot avoid our origins? Do you think our identities depend on our origins?

Rheim: I think if we want to avoid our origins we certainly can, especially in a Western metropolis. I wonder, in the particular case of cross-cultural origins, whether an editing of cultural selves into a whole is required, or if it is a continuous arrangement of existing parts. It’s never been my project to even imagine avoiding my origins; contemporary Arab identity is a beautiful challenge I have always accepted.

Bilal: Are you Iraqi?
Rheim: Do Iraqis still exist?

Bilal: How would you define your relationship with the United States as a citizen? If you think it’s a personal case, please tell me why.

Rheim: I happened to be born in a post-industrial wasteland in northeastern United States. But I lived and developed as a human being – linguistically, socially, psychologically—as a young Iraqi citizen in Baghdad until 1980, ahead of a string of wars and other travesties. I have since resided in the United States.

Bilal: Are you American?
Rheim: Do Americans really exist?

Bilal: Are you Arab?
Rheim: If one does not surrender, then one cannot be a victim.

Car Parts Sewn From Memory, 2009

Bilal: I always thought of art as a personal activity. I mean art can’t stand and rise by logic alone. We are however we might find our self, and we are always trying to define and defend that self. I fully understand your argument about Iraq as a theatre of memory.

Rheim: But I don’t believe art is a personal activity. I imagine it, necessarily, as a public activity, which may or may not be acknowledged. As a public activity, it makes sense that art is a platform for defining, or at least investigating, ways of looking at society and relating to the world in a relevant way. The theatre of my memory, of my longing for a place like Iraq, is rooted in the agonizing consciousness of unjust policies imposed by the United States, the country where I live today.

Auto Mechanic With Car, (altered press image), 2010

Bilal: But at the same time, I think that longing for childhood places can’t build up any discourses besides a poetic one, which is always related to disaster. I can imagine that if Iraq had another history, with less blood and violence, you might still live there. But as a small cultural player, do you think longing is enough? And let me remind you: American foreign policy used to consider Iraq a “theatre” too. Do you think you are an American cultural player who wants to build another stage beside the political one? Or you are just a survivor from serial disasters?

Rheim: I am not very interested in nostalgia, but trying to avoid one’s origins would be too easy. For example, I could easily change the spelling of my name, style my hair differently, and move to some US suburb with a husband and three kids; this would be just another imaginary theatre, pointing in a different direction. The theatre of war is something we are all familiar with from a very early age: toy guns, video games, and competitive masculinity. There is an entire spectrum of discourses around this very privileged theatre. The theatre of war makes every other discourse look small.

I Don’t Want To Breathe, (altered press image), 2010

Bilal: It seems that you are hugely attached to your objects or “models” as an artist, that generally speaking, you have a fairly complex relationship to your models. Sometimes, they seem like traces of your field of observation or investigation and sometimes they appear like valuable things you shyly present to the public. What I’m trying to say is that your art works seem sometimes like your personal secrets. Is that true?

Rheim: I think about this a lot – whether or not to make work based on my previous processes, concepts, or “models”. If I settle on a singular processual relationship, there may be less time to explore newer ones. The ways of interacting with images, objects or situations are less secret than they are unstated. Allow me to clarify this. For example, with Concrete Road Blocks (originally a military photo documenting soldiers at battle in the north of Baghdad), the interaction involved digitally removing the soldiers, but left for consideration the objects whose only function is blocking the passage of automobiles – obstructing human mobility. In this sense it is more a framework, and less of a model, for ways of looking at the ongoing crisis in Iraq. I can say with little hesitation that I do not intend my work to be a secret.

Concrete Road Blocks, (altered press image), 2010

Bilal: When we went together to see your work at Glendale College, I thought, for an instance that you bring your tiny artworks in your pockets to hang on the wall. They were so small; anyone could hide them in their pocket. But at the same time they were so dense and full of pain, if we can refer to the explosion and purple smoke as painful. I think no one from the audience could have said that they had similar experience to yours; you were the only one to deal with this kind of reality and its image. Some artists love to let their spectators suffer like they have done, and sometimes even more so than the artist him or herself has suffered. In your work, however, you seem to keep your emotions to yourself and you never let the audience take up your position. Some artists tend to exaggerate their emotions in their artworks. In your work, the exact opposite occurs.

Rheim: The piece you saw was called Contemplation of Action. It was an appropriation of found press imagery. It presents Iraq as self-consciously miniature, playing with the idea that, from a distance, things look small and maybe we really believe they are small. I don’t mind that you imagine I transported the work to the gallery in my pocket.

In fact, that day at Glendale College is a nice memory for me. I think we spent half an hour on the overpass adjacent to the gallery. Maybe you disclosed some things about yourself; I think you told me about your loved ones. The overpass was an elevated walkway over a busy street connecting Glendale College to a parking lot. It was autumn and we were wearing jackets.

Woman in winter wetlands, Diwaniyah, 2010

Bilal: I remember very well. I was writing something in English and you asked me if I often do. As any stranger, I was almost blind and you were my guide, but even with your guidance we lost our bearings for a while… Perhaps I was your guide in some way too.

Rheim: This should be obvious.

Bilal: You appear in several photos in your artwork but that doesn’t mean you like to exhibit yourself. Factually, you look like one of your “models”; literally you live far away from their situation, yet they are closer to you than ever. How would you define your relationship with your various places of longing? And what about the physical distance between where you live and the place you long for?

Rheim: It is late afternoon and the weather is beautiful today in Los Angeles. I want to say, because I feel good and full of hope, that the world is my reference. But my own process undermines this statement as I try to engage in new ways of looking. In this over-determined geography I want to confuse representations and posit redefinitions – to the point where my longing is always for something undetermined, out of reach, yet to be seen.

Published September 29, 2010.