Wafaa Bilal: Speech in a Democracy

"Virtual Jihadi"

Wafaa Bilal is currently an artist-in-residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the city of Troy, New York. Shortly after his arrival on March 5, his exhibition in the gallery of the Arts department was closed to the public by order of the university's president. Today there is no certainty that the exhibition will be reopened. What I want to show is that every aspect of Wafaa Bilal's visit to RPI points back to one fundamental issue: the value of free speech in a democracy.

Bilal was born in Iraq in 1966. He resisted the authoritarian government of Saddam Hussein, suffered persecution and then escaped the country, emigrating to the US in the early 1990s to realize a lifelong dream. He completed an MFA at the Chicago Art Institute in 2003 - and then, due to circumstances far beyond his own choosing, he became one of the most controversial artists in America.

He works with photography, video and computer games, using the Internet to reach beyond the gallery to a wider public. At the heart of his recent pieces is a single principle: he performs the existence of an Iraqi civilian. He shows us, tells us and tries to make us feel what life might be like right now, for those he left behind in his home country. By staging himself in interactive situations, he asks each of us to chose what we have to say to the Iraqi people.