Above: Volunteers help harvest the Phragmites plant in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge that spans 1,000 acres in Philadelphia and Delaware counties.
An invasive plant is the centerpiece of an installation that's coming together at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia.
Phragmites (frag-MY-teez) will be used to build a traditional Iraqi guesthouse called a mudhif (moo-deef), one of the first such structures in America. The environmental art project is called Al-Mudhif—A Confluence. Yaroub Al Obaidi MA '19 and Seattle-based environmental artist Sarah Kavage, in conjunction with teams of artists and volunteers, are harvesting the reedy plant in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Phragmites is an invasive wetland grass that threatens ecosystems worldwide and is one of the most abundant plants in the Delaware River Watershed.
Kavage met Al Obaidi when she spoke about Phragmites at a Conversations@Moore event in January 2020 that focused on ecology, climate change and public art. Kavage had been using Phragmites to make decorative benches and sculptures. One of her slides showed how Phragmites can be used to build a mudhif. Al Obaidi, a native of Iraq who moved to the U.S. in 2016, was in the audience.
"Yaroub came up to me afterward and said he knew how to build a mudhif, and I was like 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Kavage said. "I was just blown away by this one simple conversation. It changed the course of this whole project because it was the essence of what we were trying to do in terms of creating a welcoming and healing space."
Since then, the two have held "Phrag Fests," where volunteers harvest the plant in great quantities to be used for the mudhif and other sculptures. They are calling for Native and Indigenous artists to participate in the project.
Mudhifs date back 5000 years to the Sumerian civilization of southern Mesopotamia. Al Obaidi said a mudhif is a ceremonial gathering place where people meet to solve problems, host important people, and hold weddings and funerals. He said designs on mudhifs in Iraq reflect the stories and traditions about individual tribes.
"It is very important—the columns are arranged in bundles of a certain number of reeds that relate to that tribe," he said. He said the reeds are always bundled in odd-numbered amounts, such as 7 or 9, with larger numbers reflecting the size of the tribe.
Left: Moore students helped gather Phragmites in 2019.
In February, Al Obaidi and Kavage discussed building the mudhif during the Schuylkill Center's program Braiding Phragmites: Richard L. James Lecture.
"My guiding principal for this project is just to try and take something that's familiar and turn it into something that's more wondrous and fantastic for folks to experience," said Kavage. "It's just so exciting to get able to build this with Yaroub and to learn this other method of using this material."