Did Saddam Hussein Want to be Darth Vader?

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Did Saddam Hussein want to be like Darth Vader? That’s one of the provocative questions posed by artist Michael Rakowitz‘s latest exhibition, The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one’s own, currently on display at the Tate Modern museum in London.

More broadly, Rakowitz’s work explores the linkages between Western science fiction and Hussein’s regime in Iraq. As fanciful a connection as that may sound, this isn’t just a matter of an artist interpreting the world as he pleases. Rakowitz has done his homework, and Hussein may have had a Star Wars obsession after all: according to the artist’s research, the first showing of Star Wars in Iraq may have taken place at a Baathist private party attended by Hussein in 1980, and some of his regalia may well have been inspired by Imperial trappings.

As the exhibit title suggests, one of the central images in Rakowitz’s gallery is the famous Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad, which Hussein unveiled in 1989 to commemorate Iraq’s supposed victory over Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of the past eight years (the arms are modeled on Saddam’s own). Rakowitz contrasts it with the iconic poster for Empire Strikes Back.

On the one hand: sure, crossed swords, what’s the big deal. On the other: when you lay them side-by-side, there is an uncanny resemblance, especially when you look at angles and proportions.

Text: “The first Iraqi screening of Star Wars most likely took place in March of 1980, nearly three years after its original US release, at a private event attended by Saddam Hussein and his fifteen-year-old son Uday in the auditorium of Ba’ath Party Headquarters in Baghdad, six months before the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War.”

The exhibit also refers to the Darth Vader-like trappings of Hussein’s private militia. Writes New Scientist’s Jessica Griggs (be sure to read her essay on the exhibit):

Before his son, Uday, handed over control of the Fedayeen Sadaam (translation: “Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice”) to his younger brother he wanted to give his father something to remember his work by. So he presented Saddam with their new uniform: black shirt, black trousers and a ski-mask over which a strikingly Darth Vader-esque helmet was placed.

A little overreaching? Maybe, but it’s got some substance behind it, and 1980s sci-fi and 1980s politics did play off each other in fascinating ways. See: Reagan’s “Star Wars” antimissile system; the original V (whose contemporary remake has its own political overtones).

The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one’s own will be on display at the Tate until May 3rd.

(h/t Culture Lab. title image via Culture Lab; sketches via Tate Modern.)


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