It is a tremendous privilege for the MEI Art Gallery to open its second exhibition with the show, Speaking Across Mountains: Kurdish Artists in Dialogue.
The exhibit, which features ten contemporary artists from Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, many now living in the diaspora, offers Washington audiences a rare opportunity to connect with a multiplicity of Kurdish voices and experiences beyond news headlines. Through painting, video, sculpture, photography, and mixed-media installation, the artists reflect on themes that have long shaped the Kurdish experience, such as displacement, exile, memory, and gender, while giving voice to the resilience of Kurdish communities in the face of decades of persecution.
Often described as the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, the region’s 35 million Kurds are spread mostly across the intersection between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Viewed as a threat to the nationalist agendas of regional governments, Kurds have suffered systematic attacks against their communities and culture since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Among the most brutal campaigns was Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s. Known as the Anfal genocide, more than 100,000 Kurdish civilians perished in military operations, including several thousand in a chemical attack on the town of Halabja.
Next door in Turkey, the government continues to raze Kurdish villages in its war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group which has been fighting for greater self-determination for Turkey’s 12 million Kurds since the 1980s. Ankara’s fears about the growing autonomy of neighboring Syrian Kurds led Turkey to invade northern Syria this past October, forcing yet another wave of Kurdish civilians to flee military assault.
The revival of the security-oriented approach to the Kurdish question in Turkey and Syria has compelled young Kurds to explore new avenues of expression. In Diyarbakir, the spiritual capital of Turkey’s Kurds, much of which lies in ruins due to clashes with security forces, new Kurdish cultural institutions have been launched, such as the independent art space, Loading, to preserve Kurdish culture and build links between Kurds and the international contemporary art world.
In neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region which has enjoyed relative stability since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, innovative cultural spaces are also opening. The Culture Factory in Sulaymaniyah, housed in an old tobacco factory, provides studio and exhibition spaces for artists, as well as a home for Xline, a utopian artistic collective which helps young people find ways to build a creative future. These and other cultural initiatives in the region reflect demands by a younger generation to not only safeguard Kurdish culture, but also to address the past, as well as challenge ossified social and political norms through art, literature, film, music, and poetry.
This drive is evident in the works of the ten artists represented in Speaking Across Mountains, whose art seeks to remember and memorialize difficult histories, confront corrupt and unjust political systems, and to tackle outdated gender norms that have long discriminated against half the population. We invite you to linger over the 16 works in this show. They are complex, challenging and at times dark, but reveal a determination by the Kurdish artists featured to reflect upon and imagine a different future for the next generation.
Vice President, Arts and Culture
Director, Arts and Culture Center