Eternal threads: Asmaa Alanbari's 'Gilgamesh Contemporary II' is a fusion of past and present

Asmaa Alanbari's Gilgamesh: Snuggling baby
5 min read
25 January, 2024

From February 3-5, London-based artist Asmaa Alanbari is set to unveil her captivating second performance, centred around the legendary figure of Gilgamesh.

Titled Gilgamesh Contemporary II, this presentation seamlessly weaves together video projections capturing the essence of oceans and forests.

The outcome is an immersive visual spectacle that effortlessly bridges the primal and the contemporary. This performance follows the success of Gilgamesh Contemporary, the inaugural showcase held at the French Culture Institute of the UK from May 12 to 15, 2022.

"This thought-provoking showcase prompts reflection on contemporary indifference towards the gradual erasure of these invaluable aspects in our relentless pursuit of time"

Gilgamesh Contemporary II captivates audiences with its mesmerising multimedia art installation and performance, presenting a creative reinterpretation of the timeless literary epic.

This immersive experience seamlessly blends music, performance art, and projections, showcasing a curated selection of masterpieces from the Louvre and the British Museum.

These iconic works harmoniously integrate with contemporary art and photography, enhancing the overall aesthetic and cultural resonance of the installation.

Director Alanbari extends a compelling invitation, urging the audience to connect with our natural treasures and embrace the profound tapestry of our ancient cultural heritage.

This thought-provoking showcase prompts reflection on contemporary indifference towards the gradual erasure of these invaluable aspects in our relentless pursuit of time. Ultimately, Alanbari challenges perceptions and invites viewers to contemplate the delicate interplay between our past and present.

Asmaa Alanbari's Gilgamesh: Ishtars Arrival
The fated arrival of Ishtar, the Babylonian Goddess of Love and War [photo credit: Asmaa Alanbari]

Gilgamesh through time and space

Gilgamesh, the semi-mythic ruler of Uruk, gained renown as the protagonist in The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2150-1400 BCE), a significant Babylonian poem predating Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by 1500 years. This makes it the oldest piece of epic world literature. Gilgamesh is a prominent figure in various Sumerian poems, achieving worldwide fame through the Mesopotamian epic.

Historical evidence supporting Gilgamesh’s existence lies in inscriptions acknowledging his contribution to the construction of Uruk’s great walls (modern-day Warka, Iraq).

In the narrative, these walls serve as the tablets upon which he initially documents his pursuit of the meaning of life. Additionally, Gilgamesh is cited in the Sumerian King List (circa 2100 BCE) and is referenced by notable historical figures of his era, such as King Enmebaragesi of Kish (circa 2700 BCE), along with the legends surrounding his reign.

The exploration of the meaning of life, a theme scrutinised by writers and philosophers throughout history, finds its initial comprehensive examination in the Gilgamesh epic.

Departing from the comfort of his city after the demise of his closest companion, Enkidu, the hero-king embarks on a quest to discover the mystical figure Utnapishtim and attain eternal life.

Gilgamesh’s apprehension of death is essentially a fear of meaninglessness. Despite falling short of achieving immortality, the quest itself imparts significance to his life.

Live Story

Alanbari, the artist behind this extraordinary rendition of Gilgamesh, reveals that her innovative adaptation serves as a metaphorical exploration of the persistent human desire for eternal youth. In the face of climate change and material destruction, Alanbari contemplates the paradox of pursuing everlasting life when the very essence of our existence is under threat.

Reflecting on her inspiration, Alanbari observes the prevalent societal fixation on short-term satisfaction and instant pleasures. Drawing parallels with the ancient character of Gilgamesh, Alanbari emphasises that the Sumerians' age-old theme remains relevant today – the human obsession with immortality.

Hailing from Iraq and shaped by experiences in both France and the UK, Alanbari is a curator and visual artist with a portfolio that includes exhibitions at prestigious institutions such as the Saatchi Gallery, Christie’s Auction House, and the Royal College of Art in London.

Her rendition of Gilgamesh unfolds as the legendary hero coerces an old savant into divulging the location of the plant of eternal youth. However, as Gilgamesh retrieves his coveted prize from the depths of the sea, he discovers that the plant has transformed into plastic. This narrative prompts a poignant critique, questioning the worth of eternal youth when weighed against the losses incurred.

Beyond its environmental undertones, Gilgamesh Contemporary II equally champions the preservation of heritage. Alanbari, a qualified architect, expresses her enduring fascination with heritage, evident not only in this project but also in her broader body of contemporary art. Despite the cautionary themes woven into her work, there is an underlying celebration of the fertility and rich heritage of her native Iraq.

Live Story

On a different note, this performance serves as a poignant act of remembrance — a reflection on the tragic erasure of culture and heritage.

As expressed by Asmaa in an interview with The New Arab, "I aspire to make a humble yet meaningful contribution, challenging stereotypes and conveying to people, not only in Iraq but across the entire Middle East, that our culture is extraordinary and deserves celebration. We must not forget our roots."

This sentiment is particularly resonant for the Assyrian community, grappling with the threat of identity erasure. Asmaa points out that the recent discovery of Lumasi in Iraq serves as a testament to the richness of our heritage, emphasizing the imperative to preserve and cherish our cultural legacy, ensuring it is neither erased nor forgotten.

The performance will take place at London’s Rich Mix, and tickets for the performance can be purchased here.

Zainab Mehdi is a Researcher and Freelance Journalist specialising in governance, development, and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region

Follow her on Twitter: @zaiamehdi