By Sam Beal, Communications Volunteer

Introducing Rana

“When I arrived in 2003, it took me a while to find a way back to my identity” imparts Rana Ibrahim over a cup of English breakfast tea matched with a Klecha, Iraq’s famed date-stuffed biscuit. “Everything was new. Language was a barrier … my husband and I were worried.” Rana needed time to adjust to her new life in the UK. She taught herself English via the internet, the library and her children’s school. An Archaeologist by training, Rana earned a Master’s degree in Museum Studies in 2007 at Newcastle University before eventually finding work in the University of Oxford museums.

For all her achievements and tumults since arriving some 19 years ago, Rana confides it was difficult for her to emotionally process past life in Iraq, as well as the ongoing violence that still plagues the country. Like so many refugees in the UK, Rana is a child of conflict. Rana grew up during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, before being forced to flee in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war. When asked how she managed to process a life dominated by war, Rana admits “it took me a while”. It was only in 2017 that Rana finally found the mental strength to commence her work on the Iraqi Women Art and War (IWAW) community group.

Although Rana had always engaged in art as an archaeologist in Baghdad, it was her sister that provided the real inspiration for the IWAW project. While Rana was able to settle in the UK, her sister remained in Mosul after 2003. As the ISIS insurgency grew in 2014, Rana’s sister was forced to flee south to Baghdad with all but a few worldly possessions. One of her most prized objects, a well-worn leather bag, barely survived the journey. Rather than dispose of the bag (and all its deeply personal meaning), Rana’s sister crafted a vase out of the leather. “Her memories were still in this piece of art” muses Rana.

It was then that Rana saw the emotional potency of objects, and of the mundane, for many of those fleeing war. Glaring at the deluge of news footage depicting destruction and death in Iraq, Rana explains, “I shifted to talking about ordinary things. Instead of highlighting the killing, I wanted to use normal objects. We are human, we lived normal [lives], I wanted to show the life around us.” This was artwork as a form of resilience, of therapy even.

Of Ordinary Things

Of Ordinary Things is the culmination of this three-year project to give women affected by war an opportunity to process their experiences and tell their stories through artistic expression. Building community, trust, solidarity, and re-kindling a sense of identity, have turned into some of IWAW’s biggest achievements.

“We have a different perspective as women; we live war differently” Rana 

Few women seeking asylum have adequate access to mental health channels, especially given the challenges of living in a foreign country and potential fear of stigma.

While much artwork related to warfare focuses on fighting and destruction, Of Ordinary Things aims to capture the everyday life of those women living in the shadow of war. “It can be very challenging to get women to speak up about their experiences”, sighs Rana.

Presenting the exhibition during a curator’s talk at the Museum of Oxford, Rana shared some of the ways in which women in her community group had turned to art: “When we talk about war it is very upsetting, there’s trauma and lots of bad memories. I try to use art because that’s how we can express ourselves in a safe way.”

Lubna, an IWAW committee member (and self-professed art neophyte) presented to the audience a stunning collection of watercolour paintings depicting her everyday life in Iraq. The emotional turmoil stemming from the contrast between the ‘ordinary things’ of life, set against the extraordinary background of war, is plain to see.

Memory and remembrance are central themes of the exhibit. Rana notes that many group members have reconnected with their Iraqi identities or long-lost memories through the project. Rana encouraged attendees to try expressing what they understood by themes of home, journey, and healing with art.

Marta Lomza, Community Engagement and Exhibitions Officer at the Museum of Oxford, hopes the Of Ordinary Things exhibit will help shed more light on the plight of Oxford’s refugee communities. For, Lomza adds, they are as much a part of Oxford as any other group.

‘Of Ordinary Things’ is at the Museum of Oxford from 1 April 2022 – 24th September 2022.

There is also a linked exhibition of IWAW mini-Museum to Of Ordinary Things on display at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.

If you would like to support IWAW, you can donate here.