Speaking Across Mountains: Kurdish Artists in Dialogue attempts to demonstrate two key things. The first concerns how contemporary Kurdish artists are examining particular themes vis-à-vis the greater question of Kurdish politics, including, but not limited to, ethnic Kurdish identity and representation; self-autonomy in an era of political repression by foreign governments; forced displacement and exile; and matters related to gender politics. While their practices vary greatly, these questions permeate the works by the ten featured artists in both direct and subtle forms.

Hailing from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey (Iranian representation will occur within concurrent film programming), these artists are in dialogue with one another’s works and personal circumstances. Just as the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges symbolically dominate the cultural and emotional landscape of the Kurdish people, this exhibition seeks to explore how the artistic conversation about multiple Kurdish identities and circumstances is taking place across a metaphorical mountain range.

The second element of this exhibition relates to how contemporary Kurdish art practice manifests these ideas, and the transnational reality of the global Kurdish community, in strikingly different mediums. Although non-Western art has long been dismissed by the ‘established’ art world for not having developed on the same historical trajectory as Western modern art, contemporary Kurdish artists are aesthetically and technically on par with contemporary artists in the West. Both integrate elements of the Western canon while reflecting the creativity and symbology specific to their shared cultural origins.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Kurdish people are largely misunderstood, both culturally and historically, not only by those in the West but also by many in the Middle East. Recognizing that this is only the start of a larger conversation, Speaking Across Mountains aims to bring together many different threads of Kurdish history and experience, so that visitors may begin to understand the amorphous statelessness of the Kurdish people and the oppression wrought against them in multiple sites in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Many of the works on view reflect how Kurds strive to retain ethnic autonomy while simultaneously expressing loyalty to and/or navigating complex relationships with a national homeland.

Some Kurds, such as the family of Iraqi artist Sherko Abbas, sought refuge in the early 1980s in Iran, where he was born before his family later returned to Iraq. From the onset, his identity has been one of multiplicities and overlapping narratives. Abbas’ mixed-media installation The Phantom Museum, 2019, recreates the site of the famed Red Jail in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah in the north of Iraq, where dissident Kurds were tortured, imprisoned and executed during the era of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Using archival material and his own encounter with a mysterious caravan sighted on the grounds, he effectively transforms elusive fragments into a haunting memorial.   

Iraqi painter Serwan Baran integrates memory and his personal experiences of war into his work, depicting imprisoned soldiers like those who were conscripted alongside him in his youth to fight in the Iraq-Iran war and the invasion of Kuwait, unprepared for battle yet bound to do so by the machinery of the state. In Domino Effect, 2019, the corrupt politicians who followed Saddam Hussein are depicted carrying briefcases and guns with silencers, their arms and money ruling an infinite loop of corruption. In another work, he paints female Kurdish fighters standing proud and strong in traditional costume. His works reflect the problematic and multi-faceted political reality facing Kurdish communities - the inevitable intersection of one’s ethnic homeland and one’s national homeland.

This tension is also apparent in Turkish artist Şener Özmen’s video, The Photograph, 2018, in which he narrates a moment when Turkish forces tried to obliterate his own personal history, and how a simple object like a childhood photograph can help preserve one’s memory and sense of self. The work’s presentation is timely in the context of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in late October in reaction to a Kurdish autonomous region across its border. 

Syrian painter Bahram Hajou’s painting Disappointment/Failure, 2019, is a direct reference to the reality of corrupt governance, not only in the Middle East, but universally. His two figures echo those of Adam and Eve, the prototype male and female; they sit with vacuous yet enigmatic expressions – perhaps rendered mute from sheer disappointment in the world’s failings. Turkish dissident activist and artist Zehra Doğan, recently released from prison after nearly three years years for painting a piece that angered the Turkish government, turns the state’s effort to silence her voice on its head with Yasak (Prohibition), 2018, created from actual court documents. The piece ironically challenges the censorship she faced in prison of her reading material while serving time for an artwork that was itself censored.

Dialogue and engagement with one another is a recurrent theme in the show. While some artists confront issues within their country of origin, others, like Syrian artist Khadija Baker, draw attention to political events affecting the wider community. Her textile-based installation Coffin Nest, 2007, requires physical engagement to be complete. Created in response to the discovery and exhumation of mass graves in the  aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, in which victims could only be identified by fragments of clothing, the piece was originally presented through a performance by the artist. At the MEI Art Gallery the work evolves through an exchange with the audience, as visitors are invited to add one personal item of clothing, viscerally connecting our bodies and those of the victims. 

Iraqi artists Hayv Kahraman and Kani Kamil focus on questions of gender both globally and in Iraqi society. Kahraman takes on the oppression of women in two pieces created 12 years apart. With her 2007 matroshika dolls, the layers of repression by the self and by society are demonstrated by how fully one must strip the doll of her external layers in order for her to be seen. In Kahraman’s Not Quite Human Drawing 6, 2019, which employs delicate lines akin to traditional Persian manuscripts, the artist riffs on the analogy of a female contortionist’s physical ability in order to comment upon the ways in which a patriarchal society constrict’s women’s bodies and personal experiences. The title of the work underscores Kahraman’s message - this freakish physical ability renders a person unworldly and other.

Kamil’s work speaks to the alienation of women in society and the emotional cost of this exclusion on both men and women. In her mixed-media installation Blue Blanket, 2018, Kamil turns to a personal family narrative to critique this idea, while in Sweet Dreams, 2013, she embroiders a pillow with her own hair to express her unrealized hopes for the future.

The mountain looms large in Kurdish consciousness, and Iraqi artist Walid Siti and Turkish artist Savas Boyraz both focus on the mountain’s potent symbolism and relationship to shifting national borders. Boyraz’s mixed media installation The State We Are In, 2016-2019, is a long-term visual investigation of state-sanctioned destruction. His photographs document sites of clashes between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish army in 2015-2016, when residents were forced to flee after months of fighting, and over 300 civilians lost their lives. The objects in the photographs carry traces of this violence, situated in sites still under strict military surveillance. Deceptively serene landscapes belie the violence that took place there.

Siti’s sculptural painting A Poem to the Mountain at the Edge of the World, 2019, evokes the stoic magnificence of the Zagros and Taurus mountain ranges, spread across historic Kurdistan, at the intersection of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The work is a poetic reminder of a sober and dispiriting Kurdish saying, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” It is our hope that  this exhibition is but a start in calling for greater recognition, support and engagement with both Kurdish artists and the larger issues facing the global Kurdish community.

Heba Elkayal
New York City, November 2019

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