Airport Art, Post 9/11

Mahmud al-Obaidi can’t speak to whether blondes have more fun, but they certainly have more freedom. Or so he argues in his handmade and hand-painted artwork/book, How Not to Look Like a Terrorist in the Eyes of American Airport Authority.

The Iraqi artist’s work is on view in the recently opened “Beyond the War” show at Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery on the Upper East Side. The show includes his “cosmetic kit” designed to occidental-ize the appearance of Middle Eastern travelers so they are less suspect to airport security; he proposes putting these kits in airport vending machines.

Mr. al-Obaidi, 43, an established artist in his country in the years before the war, was the only one of seven Iraqi artists in the show to come to the exhibition (he was granted a visa because he has a Canadian passport). Mr. al-Obaidi said he left Baghdad in 1991 and has not returned since 2003.

The show is curated by Gayle Wells Mandle, an American who lives in Doha, Qatar. Her husband, Roger Mandle, is director of the spectacular Museum of Islamic Art there. The exhibition, which includes selections from his $80,000 installation Fair Skies, is up, at the gallery at 39 East 78th Street, through April 30.

The Observer: How did “Fair Skies” come about?

Mr. al-Obaidi: I had a show in Houston more than a year ago, and when I left, flying to Holland, everyone at the airport was either blonde or black, no one looked like me. A security agent took me aside and interrogated me. I told my wife that I should change my hair and my look, just for the airport.

So, for the exhibition, you’ve made the How Not to Look Like a Terrorist book that sells for $16,100. You have a set of dolls of yourself-some dark-haired, some blond. And you have a cosmetic kit on view?

We have a kit of hair dye and blue contact lenses that you can buy for a dollar-it’s all washable. I designed vending machines for them as part of an installation.

What happened to them?

Agents in Doha wouldn’t let us ship them. They said the machines weren’t art.

And the dolls?

I made the first one myself, and had the rest made in China. The installation is in seven editions, so I made 500 dolls.

The blondes look happier. Is it true blondes have more freedom?

These days, yes. In the U.S., and even in Iraq.

You say you were racially profiled, but can you understand that reasonable fear might have motivated the agent who pulled you aside?

Yes. But I was questioned because of my looks. No one else around me was. Not everyone who looks like me is a terrorist.

Middle Eastern art is hot in the U.S. and European markets these days. Could you show these dolls in Iraq?

This art? No way. For artists there, it’s hell now. They can’t show, they can’t sell. They’re doing physical work to make money.

Why did the other artists in “Beyond the War” not come to New York.

If you only have an Iraqi passport, you won’t get a visa for the States, or for any other country. People think Iraqis will come and never leave.

But you’re here.

I have a Canadian passport. I divide my time between Toronto and Doha.

What’s been some of the feedback you’ve gotten?

People told me I should have smiled at the airport-but that might have drawn attention. Airport Art, Post 9/11