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From Toronto to Baghdad: new Aga Khan exhibit helps rebuild destroyed university library 2018-07-22

Sunday, 2018, July 22
Iraqi-American artist poses with his project 168:01 at the Aga Khan Museum  2018-07-17
Julia Knope

Visitors will gradually transform the exhibit's empty library to a collaborative donation

With its long shelf lined with white-covered books all housed inside a cavernous room, the newest offering at the Aga Khan Museum looks a bit like an empty, sterile library. But the creative force behind the project hopes visitors will fill it with the knowledge contained in thousands of new textbooks.
The exhibit, 168:01: A Library Rising from the Ashes, aims to create an exchange between museum goers in Toronto and students at a university almost 10,000 kilometres away in Iraq that lost nearly all of its textbooks in a fire.

"I wanted the show to be participatory, and I wanted the show to be rewarding, both for the people in the comfort zone and the people in the conflict zone," Waffa Bilal, the artist behind the exhibit, said an interview this week with CBC's Metro Morning.

New Aga Khan exhibit focuses on libraries | Listen on Metro Morning

The idea is simple. Upon arrival, visitors are encouraged to purchase a book from a wish list of texts that the school needs to replenish its own library. The newly bought book then replaces one of the empty, stark white books currently on the shelf.

Visitors who do choose to buy a textbook get to take one of the empty books home with them.

When the exhibit closes in August, all of the textbooks will be shipped to the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad.

"Over time, these white books will turn back into colour, which is an analogy of how we are turning back to bring the knowledge that we lost," Bilal said.

A collection of some 70,000 works housed at the school was mostly destroyed after looters set fire to it back in 2003 during the height of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Bilal said the blaze was just one example of how war has decimated the country's library stores, and the exhibit is a way of addressing the tragedy head on.

"That is what we see after turmoil, after an invasion — the first thing that disappears is the antiquity, the heritage, the books, the knowledge," Bilal said.
"Unfortunately Iraq has lost so much of that."

The donation of the textbooks is supposed to be a symbol of hope, he explains, and that concept inspired the name of the exhibit.

168:01 references a pivotal moment in the country's long and traumatic relationship with the destruction that conflict brings. Iraqi lore says that at one point in history, an invading army set fire to all of the libraries in Baghdad. As a result, the ink from the books bled into the Tigris River for seven straight days, or 168 hours.

The exhibit's name, therefore, is meant to symbolize the moment that grief is transformed into a call to action, Bilal said. ​

"We can't replace what Iraq has lost, but what we could do is to look forward and how to lend a hand to the Iraqis and say 'you're not alone in your struggle.'"

Bilal explained that as a child, libraries offered him a lifeline.
"I grew up in libraries," he said.

At age five, he began frequenting the library that his father managed

"I lived with nine kids in one room," he said. "I escaped that to go and study in our city library."

As a college student, he said he relied on books to access information on the rest of the world, and hopes these books will help current students in Iraq due the same.

"Books were the windows to the rest of the world to acquire knowledge," Bilal said.

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