An Interview with Artist Donna Ruff on ‘Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here’

Films, a panel discussion and an exhibit commemorate a culturally active street in Baghdad that was car-bombed

Date February 1, 2013 at 3:40 PM

Author Brandon Ghigliotty


Categories Art Markets & Galleries Community Culture Entertainment & Nightlife Local News & Sports

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Donna Ruff, printmaker, illustrator and Art Department faculty member for more than two years at Santa Fe University of Art and Design spoke with about the “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” exhibition coming to Santa Fe the second week of February. Some of Ruff’s work is part of the international exhibition’s tour, which is visiting the SFUAD campus as part of the school’s “Artists for Positive Social Change” series. The exhibition’s opening reception, which is free and open to the public, will take place on Friday, February 8 at 5p.m. in the Fine Arts Gallery in the campus’ Southwest Annex. Could you tell me about your current project?

Donna Ruff: In March of 2007 the street of booksellers in Baghdad, Iraq, Al-Mutanabbi Street, was car-bombed. Thirty people died and many more were injured. So you might say, car bomb in Baghdad, what else is new? But bombing Al-Mutanabbi Street was symbolic for Iraqis and indeed for all who are interested in maintaining cultural life in the Middle East. Under Saddam Hussein, there was a very closed society but writers and poets, intelligentsia, still congregated on Al-Mutanabbi Street. Even though the magazines and books, especially those from the West, were out of date, there was such a hunger for connection to the world of ideas, the street was revered by Iraqis. So bombing it was a direct hit on that world of ideas.

A poet and bookseller from San Francisco, Beau Beausoleil, read about the bombings and decided to do something to commemorate the street and those who had died. There had been a lot written about Al-Mutanabbi Street because it was so symbolic. Beau first organized a group of artists to do broadsides, or posters, responding to the bombing. The broadsides often used texts from pieces written about the street. Then Beau put out a call to book artists to do an artist’s book commemorating the street. I was one of the artists invited to do this. Each artist made three books: two of them will travel in exhibitions that have already begun, all over the world. The other book will be in the permanent collection of the National Library in Baghdad. We are hosting an exhibition of almost 100 of the books (there are 260 in all) and have several events planned. On Wednesday February 6th we will be showing two films—one, “A Candle for Shabandar Cafe,” is by a student and is about the iconic café on Al-Mutanabbi Street where everyone hung out before the bombing. The other film, “Open Shutters,” is about a photography workshop that was organized by a filmmaker from Baghdad who now lives in London. She brought women from Baghdad to Syria to teach them how to take photographs and write their life stories. It’s very moving. We have no idea how much being at war has impacted the lives of ordinary people. The workshop taught them not only about the specifics of good photography, but about how their individual experiences are important.

On Thursday February 7th we will have a panel discussion with Beau, who is coming from San Francisco to take part in our exhibition, along with me and two other artists whose works are in the show, which officially opens on Friday, with music provided by world music students. I am teaching a book arts class this semester and my students are helping curate the exhibition. These books were made by internationally known book artists—it is very special for us to have it here.

It’s important for the community to support this too. I often hear from people that the events at SFUAD are meant for the college community and people don’t know to come, or they feel they are not invited. Nothing could be further from the truth. I also want to say that part of the reason I feel it’s important to involve students and community alike is that we have so little contact with the Middle East other than seeing the images and stories of fighting and war—we think of them as the Other and it’s important to understand that they are not a bunch of terrorists looking to destroy our way of life. This is why Beau titled the exhibition “Al-Mutanabbi Starts Here.” Because this is the narrative for all of us who are interested in art and literature, who want people to be able to argue ideas, get lost in a book, see what’s happening outside their small world. And I might mention that the street was bombed again recently, just as the booksellers were starting to rebuild. The deliberate destruction of centuries of artifacts and important works of art has been very disheartening to see. Remember that writing was invented in that part of the world. Compared to the cultural history that began in the Middle East, our history in the West is rather recent.

SFDC: It’s unfortunate to hear about another bombing there. It isn’t a crime to want to break out of a cultural bubble.

DR: Not a crime here, but in so much of the world it is. I mean, we could talk about so many areas where there is no freedom of speech whatsoever, where even getting a polio shot is forbidden because the idea has been circulated that it’s a Western plot to sterilize children. We are so lucky to live in this country. But the human spirit is so strong—you can see it in the women featured in the film we’re showing. We need to be reminded of this because it’s so easy to forget it. So ultimately this whole project is about optimism. Beau specified that the books were not to be memorial pieces. They are to celebrate books as containers of information and hope. When a government wants to instill fear and power, books are the first things they destroy. But they will not disappear—there will always be a way for ideas to grow and flourish.

SFDC: And we’re in the information age now. Digital circumventing of these blockades has already begun. It’s rather pathetic to take lives against a tide of change like the one that’s poised.

DR: Absolutely, social media and the internet have been the lifeline of change and democratic revolt. So one hopes that this can continue even when access to the Internet is shut down by despotic government forces.


Donna Ruff, Rabii. 2012

Lauren Camp, Versions: A Deconstruction. 2012

Suzanne Vilmain, Untitled: A Collection of Maps for Al-Mutanabbi Street – Baghdad,