The Colors of Warka Debuts in Washington

March 19, 2010

About the Authors: Kathryn Speckart serves as a Collections Manager at the U.S. Diplomacy Center in the Bureau of Public Affairs, and Kelli Cook serves as a Public Diplomacy Officer in PRT Muthanna.

The exhibit, The Colors of Warka: Paintings by Iraqi Women of Muthanna Province, is currently on display in the Exhibit Hall of the U.S. Department of State until April 2, 2010. How it arrived in Washington is a story unto itself.

Kathryn writes: Anyone can guess that the Department of State is a huge place -- so many offices, so many acronyms, all over the world. One of the central “meeting places” for this global agency is this blog. In April 2009, while browsing DipNote, I came across an entry by Aaron Snipe, then the Public Diplomacy Officer at PRT Muthanna, describing a recent cultural program involving female Iraqi artists in his province. The PRT worked with a local organization to sponsor the creation and first-ever public exhibition of paintings by these women. (See the exhibit brochure for a complete description).

The project and the artwork were so inspiring and fit so well with USDC's mission that I had to get in contact with this Aaron Snipe. We corresponded on the possibilities of the art coming to DC. This idea appealed to my USDC colleagues as well as Aaron. His initial response, “We had no plans to send the exhibit to D.C., but would love to do so.”

He was scheduled to leave Iraq in July; accordingly he laid the groundwork for the next public diplomacy officer to pick up easily where he left off. Kelli Cook arrived at PRT Muthanna as the next Public Diplomacy Officer and we began talking logistics. And little did I appreciate the logistics of moving paintings out of a rural corner of Iraq.

Kelli writes: Before I even arrived at PRT Muthanna, I knew that I would be the ‘Logistical Officer' for this mission, and moving paintings from Iraq to Washington, D.C. requires a lot of logistics. First they had to move from Joint Security Station (JSS) Soto in Muthanna Province to Tallil Air Base in Dhi Qar Province where the USPS is located. U.S. Army Blackhawks and Regional Security Office (RSO) helicopters were used to get them to Tallil. I was horrifically concerned that the paintings would fly right out (Headline: Diplomat's paintings fly out of helo, hit rotors, down Army bird), but the crew chiefs gingerly placed the wrapped paintings in a safe spot.

Military bases in Iraq do not stock boxes to mail paintings. A large-scale search ensued conducted by any member of the PRT with the bad luck to cross my path. “Hey (insert unlucky name)! Keep an eye for any box that might hold a painting!” Dumpsters were scoured and our supply sergeant went begging to his Air Force colleagues.

And then my eyes fell on three mini-refrigerators, two white boards and a poster box sitting in our office. It turns out that if you cut a mini-fridge box in half, pad the box with the white boards and empty the humongous box of “Picturing America” posters, they will all hold paintings securely.

The last step was taking the paintings to the post office, where they meticulously, hand inspect everything. I thought I'd get a pass, but it was not until the fourth and fifth return trips that she looked at me incredulously, shook her head and marked my box: “PASSED INSPECTION.”

Amazingly they arrived in Washington, D.C. in perfect shape. They traveled by helicopter from one province to another, SUV to the Post Office, 7-ton truck to the airfield, C-130 to Kuwait, forklift to another plane, DHL MD-11 to New York, USPS truck to Washington, D.C. and finally a USPS delivery truck to the State Department. It is ironic that the women artists will never leave the province but their paintings are now world-travelers. But perhaps this is the first step in opening up the world to them.

Kathryn writes: Not only did the paintings arrive in perfect shape, they arrived in good time. The last box arrived on Friday, February 5, just as the snow was beginning to fall on what would become Snowmageddon 2010 in Washington, D.C.. After being professionally framed and photographed, we installed the paintings in early March. Judging by the "oohs" and "aahs" from people passing by the installation-in-progress, and the several inquiries we have already fielded about the paintings, the show has been a worthwhile endeavor.

We invite you to view the slideshow online of the paintings in the exhibit and let us know what you think. Thanks to a simple blog entry, the spark and connection were made that eventually brought this inspiring exhibit to Washington, D.C.

Related Entry:Through Their Paintings, Everyone Will Know Their Stories

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