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EXCLUSIVE: Sundus Abdul Hadi’s Warchestra //

byThe Narcicyst

Sundus Abdul Hadi is a painter and musician, not in the traditional sense but a lover of the lore, a slave to the melody. The 26-year-old Iraqi and Montreal native has steadily drowned her head in the sorrows of Iraq for the past two years working on the Warchestra, a series of paintings that will open at the 2010 Mayworks Festival in Toronto. Alongside her 14 pieces of art, she has produced soundscapes and collaborated with the likes of Suheir Hammad to accompany the conceptual presentation of this symphony of colors. As I helped produce the sound of the series, I couldn’t help but want to ask her questions. Check out some selected pieces in the gallery below, and read what Sundus had to say about her process.

For the full multimedia experience, check out the featured gallery >>

How did Warchestra come about?
I’d been collecting media images of Arabs and Iraqis for many years. By 2003, it was more of an obsession, collecting dozens of images a day from Iraq through online media libraries. It was both

because I couldn’t be there to witness the war and because I wanted to police how my people were being represented to the world through camera lenses of those working for the media machine.

By the time I had collected a considerable database of images, I started juxtaposing them with my own images of Baghdad from my visit in 2004, and more recently, 2009. Almost each painting is set in a space that I myself have been driven through and photographed: Haifa street, Freedom Square, the highway from Amman to Baghdad, the Ministry of Justice.

The crazy thing with Warchestra was that weapons really started to resemble instruments. I started to find instruments that looked like weapons, too. The images are collage-based, so the process is very much one of censoring weapons with instruments, reclaiming the images of violence and making them about culture.

How did the War in Iraq influence your work?
Being Iraqi, I have thousands of years of cultural production to work from. Our heritage is [currently] overshadowed by the U.S. occupation, the subsequent internal conflict and an intense misrepresentation of the Iraqi people. Join all those elements together, and you’ll [understand] how I’ve approached making art since 2003.

What is the significance of replacing weapons with instruments?
The significance of replacing weapons with instruments is that

I am reclaiming those images of violence and occupation and altering them to create a “re-imagined” Iraq. If that image does not exist in the media, I’ll make it myself.

Its not as simple as saying “Make music, not war” but rather, using culture as a form of empowerment. As a people, we have a deep and rich cultural heritage, so we must be intelligent about our resistance so we don’t succumb to fighting each other and ourselves.

What does each instrument in your series represent?

  • Oud: A bomb. Well, a bomb-maker vs oud-maker. You decide.
  • Pianos: In “Keys of Return” the piano keys are the buildings, and the grand pianos Israeli bombs.
  • Trumpets: AK-47
  • Trombone: RPG
  • Clarinet: RPGs and missiles
  • Saxophone: RPG
  • Violins: U.S. military tanks and blackhawk helicopters
  • Upright Bass: U.S. military bases
  • Qanun: Blast walls
  • Microphone: A handgun and an explosive belt
  • Upright microphone: for a voiceless woman
  • Conductor: A suicide bomber

What do you listen to when you paint?
Although you are on my roster, I listen to all kinds of music. Fairuz, Zuhur Hussein, Maqamat Iraqiya, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Mos Def, DAM, Erykah Badu…

It seems that music has always been integral to your art. From designing covers for albums to the present series Warchestra — how is your art related to music?
My emphasis with Warchestra is to subvert objects of war with objects of culture. Adding the sound element to the paintings was also a natural evolution. Having access to musicians, poets and lyricists that inspire me adds so much more to the work. First, it gives the work a collaborative element, which is something I had been wanting to do for a while. And second,

adding sound really transports the viewer-listener to a “third space,” so to speak. It makes Warchestra more of an experience.

Coming up with the Euphrates crew at such a core time in both my own development as an artist and in the state of the world, music and art were part of the same family. [My] process was most definitely influenced by the music Euphrates were making — especially during Stereotypes Incorporated (their second album). When I had the epiphany for Warchestra, it felt completely natural to replace an RPG with a clarinet.

On “The Forgotten”
When it comes to Iraq, the media is completely preoccupied with trying to prove that Iraqis are incapable of governing themselves, how Iraqis need American military presence. People can’t make sense of [the war]. So, they forget, like a bad memory that you try to bury in the back of your head. There is no humanitarian element to this war, the rhetoric is completely political. The Iraqi people have no face; a faceless population to a (un)necessary war.

Sundus Abdul Hadi - "The Forgotten"

On “Keys of Return”
This piece came about in January of 2009, right as the Gaza war was peaking. “Keys of Return” is about the Palestinian struggle, right of return, and the Gaza War. Israeli bombs took the form of grand pianos crashing from the sky, while clarinets were the resisting missiles from Gaza. Certain elements of that war really stayed with me, and infuriated me. Looking at the contrast of size and magnitude of those two instruments (weapons of war), along with the white phosphorous that was used, and the enormous contrasts in casualties were just mind boggling. How could you not write or paint about such a catastrophe while it is happening in front of you and the world is allowing it to happen?

Sundus Abdul Hadi - Keys of Return

Warchestra opens at the 2010 Mayworks Festival in Toronto on Saturday April 24th.
About the Author: The Narcicyst (a.k.a. Narcy a.k.a. Narcel X) is one of Arab hip-hop’s pioneers; a writer, journalist; activist; and actor. Narcy is committed to taking all forms of art to new levels.

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