"You have no idea how difficult the biscuits were," said Tamara Chalabi, one of the commissioners of the Iraq pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as she described her idea of providing traditional cakes and tea for visitors along with the best of the nation's art. "We couldn't bring them from Baghdad, because of EU regulations. It was too expensive to import them from London."
"So I put out a message on Facebook asking if anyone knew an Iraqi living in Italy who could bake them [kleytcha bil joz – sesame seed biscuits stuffed with walnuts, cardamom and rose water]. I even contacted an Iraqi nun living in Rome. We found someone, but she couldn't get a visa. Finally an old family connection appeared out of nowhere, and she had a Swedish passport. She came to Venice and gave a three-day workshop to a Venetian bakery."
The biscuit problem was only one of innumerable obstacles standing in the way of the creation of the Iraq pavilion – the second time the nation has fielded work at the world's most important international art event, but the first time it has showed artists living and working in the country, rather than those exiled overseas.
The first challenge was finding artists in a country where making paintings or sculptures might seem at best a secondary concern compared with keeping body and soul together. But Chalabi, one of the figures behind the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, was determined to dent the mainstream Western "Newsnight version" of the country: "tanks, bombs, rockets, blood. It's not about whitewashing that – but rather about giving a voice to human beings that has been overlooked."
Chalabi described an art world that is painstakingly emerging from the crippling effects of invasion and the struggle to exist in a postwar world of fragile security. As well as from years of the dead hand of the Saddam regime, when the only art training available was deeply conservative and tinged by a prevailing social-realist aesthetic. "Even self-respecting artists will have had to do portraits of the leader," she said.
But she and British curator Jonathan Watkins, director of Birmingham's Ikon gallery, went on the road to find and meet artists from Kurdistan to Basra and Baghdad, ranging from the caustically witty political cartoonist Abdul Raheem Yassir to photographer Jamal Penjweny, whose series of photographs "Saddam is Here" shows ordinary Iraqis in everyday situations holding an image of Saddam over their own faces like a mask. The latter work is a reminder, according to Watkins, that the "mentality of the regime lingers in the mind".
Hashim Taeeh, from Basra, is one half of an artistic duo called WAMI. Together with Yassen Wami, he makes sculpture from discarded cardboard boxes. A whole room of the exhibition, entitled Welcome to Iraq, in the exquisite Ca' Dandolo on the Grand Canal, is furnished with items made from old packaging: a cardboard bed with cardboard pillow and eiderdown; a cardboard lamp, clock and a whole bookshelf loaded with cardboard books.
Taeeh, a self-taught artist and poet, who also works in Iraq's agriculture ministry, said: "I started using this material in 1991, the year Iraq was under economic punishment [sanctions]. Everything immediately became extremely expensive, including artists' materials, so I was not able to buy oils, or acrylic paints, or canvas and I was obliged to use this cheap cardboard. It is also a fragile material, like our fragile life. Our democracy is very fragile."
Watkins added: "A lot of the art is about making do and getting by: how to improvise in this difficult situation."
Furat al Jamil, who lives in Baghdad where she works as a filmmaker, has one piece in the show: a sculpture of a broken, 300-year-old Mesopotamian ceramic vessel hung over with honeycombs. The pot, she said, might be seen as "symbolic of a broken culture, or of a broken life". The idea of honey and the beehive, she says, "in mythology represents the soul" – there is, she says, a sense of healing or reparation, however tentative.
Chalabi believes "it will take another generation to process what has happened over the past decade: there needs to be more time and distance to discuss the war artistically". For some artists, making work is a retreat, rather than a place for commentary on politics: "You'd be amazed by how many people are doing flower paintings," she said.
"An artist lives in his or her own world," said al Jamil. "You create your own environment and keep the outside world at bay. I live in Baghdad in a house with a garden and big walls: I can somehow separate the outside world with what's happening inside. Of course when you leave and try and get around the city you get upset: when you stop at a checkpoint you wonder an IED is going to explode. But after a while you begin to ignore it. It becomes part of life." – © Guardian News and Media 2013