How an art exhibit in P.E.I. is helping to rebuild a library in Iraq

White books with blank white pages line white bookshelves at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Installation by artist Wafaa Bilal is on display at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery until Jan. 20

Wafaa Bilal's exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts features white bookshelves filled with blank white books. (Confederation Centre Art Gallery)

White books with blank white pages line white bookshelves at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

The hope is that over the next several weeks, colour will start to fill those shelves, as the blank books are replaced with academic texts, to be sent to the library at the University of Baghdad in Baghdad, Iraq. 

It's part of an exhibit by artist Wafaa Bilal, which gives the public a chance to make a difference. 

"It's an art exhibition and installation about art, politics and public participation," said Kate Sharpley, visual arts educator at the gallery. 

'It's a cultural loss'

Sharpley explains that the exhibit is meant to raise awareness the destruction of the University of Baghdad's library in 2003, as a result of war. 

"Their library got wiped out, 70,000 books," she said. 

"It's a cultural loss. Can you imagine going into your local library and not having access to books? For me I can't imagine that. … As a student, going into a library and not having access to that knowledge, or access to that link of culture and wisdom from other generations and from other cultures too."

Kate Sharpley, visual arts educator at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery stands in front of Wafaa Bilal's exhibit, which is at the gallery until Jan. 20. (Julia Cook/Confederation Centre of the Arts)

Bilal attended the University of Baghdad, Sharpley said, and he has been touring his exhibit since 2016. He now lives and teaches in New York.

While Iraq might be far away, Sharpley sees value in Islanders gaining knowledge and insight into global political events. 

"They do impact us because we have connections all over the world. We don't just live in isolation," she said. 

Rebuilding the library

The exhibit is not just about awareness, it's about collective action, too. 

Bilal is helping to rebuild the university's library, and the public can buy books to donate — either through Amazon or from local bookstores, from a wish list compiled by the University of Baghdad. 

Alternatively, people can make a cash donation to go toward purchasing books. Those who donate a book or make a cash donation of at least $25 will get to keep one of the white books from the exhibit, Sharpley said, and the donated book will take it's place. 

Kate Sharpley, left, and Tamara Steele work for the Confederation Centre Art Gallery. Steele donated a book, to replace one of the white books from the exhibit. (Julia Cook/Confederation Centre of the Arts)

"Over the course of the exhibition we hope all of the white books will actually change into academic books. So it will change the look of the exhibition too."

The exhibit is open until Jan. 20. 

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With files from Laura Chapin

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