Kurdish art that outlasted Saddam Hussein and ISIS

Safa Daud reviews an exhibition of Kurdish art at P21 Gallery that took place in October 2019

Road Through Kurdistan was one of a series of events marking the 10th anniversary of Gulan, a UK-registered charity who are active in promoting Kurdish culture, and a century since post-WW1 treaties created the borders which have rendered Kurdistan perhaps the largest stateless region in the world. The Kurdish live within Northern Iraq, Eastern Turkey, Western Iran and a portion of Syria and Armenia, and they have been fighting for independence and greater autonomy since the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Richard Wilding, curator along with Mariwan Jalal, held the exhibition from 3 to 26 October at P21 Gallery, London King’s Cross, to showcase a series of artworks created by Kurdish artists. The main purpose of the exhibition was to share the history and strength of the Kurdish people through artwork and pieces that have survived control under ISIS and Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons.

On a tour through the gallery, Wilding introduced a piece concentrating on the history of the unjust treatment of the Kurds: a drawing by Osman Ahmed (2013), which shows a line of Kurdish people forced to flee from their villages to the desert in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal policy in the 1980s. The drawing almost imitates an outline of a mountain in the distance, which represents a famous quote of the Kurds: ‘no friends but the mountains.’ Curator Richard Wilding explains that “each time the Kurdish people had been let down they would always return to the mountains.”

Osman Ahmed 2013- Line of Kurds being forced to flee their village into the desert

Osman Ahmed also showed his art in a storyboard format, focusing on the Kurds’ collective memory of the Anfal genocide. Ahmed’s drawings were based on witness statements given by Anfal survivors in 355 individual drawings, in which up to 180,000 Kurds were killed by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.

The drawings in the storyboard show a series of events taking place during the time of the Anfal Genocide. Ahmed has carefully expressed the devastating events endured by the Kurds through detailed drawings. Ahmed explains his motivation behind the drawings: “Most of my drawings come from memory and my past experience as an eyewitness, to years of political and cultural repression, culminating in the horrendous Anfal event in 1988 that left a profound effect on my life.”

Osman Ahmed (2013) series of events during Anfal genocide shown in storyboard format

Hemn Hamid, an Iraqi Kurdish artist, presented his display based on the time of occupation of Mosul by Daesh (ISIS). Hamid went through dangerous obstacles to obtain and create such art pieces. He risked his life for almost four years by smuggling medicine as well as expressing his art under the power of ISIS.

One of Hamid’s most notable pieces were the children’s toy replicate “guns” created by the children of Mosul under ISIS control. Wilding explained that this is all the children were seeing in their day to day lives whilst being under the control of ISIS, and so they would find rubber from worn out tyres and pieces of wood to imitate the guns of ISIS. ISIS fighters were seen as powerful men walking around with a “cool gadget”.

Children’s weapons by Hemn Hamid. Photography: P21 Gallery

Further into the exhibition, I noticed an intriguing diary written by a former Kurdish Peshmerga fighter in 1998, who later became an international artist: Rebwar Saed. Saed’s writings and drawings have recorded the revulsion of the chemical warfare during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal genocide in which tens of thousands of Kurds were killed. 

There is a section in the diary where Saed writes: “Yesterday Newroz passed. Food was getting harder to find every day. That afternoon we were asleep in the bunker. All of a sudden, we heard shooting. They said the planes are here. We could hear screaming. The bunker, which was half ruined, started shaking. Everyone wanted to take shelter inside. I started smelling chemical gas and everyone started to run outside. I put on my mask that I carried with me and started to run towards the higher hills. I didn’t stop until I got to the top.”

Recorded Diary of the events that took place after chemical attack by Rebwar Saed

The culture and traditions of the Kurdish people have been challenging to preserve and celebrate, but exhibitions like Road Through Kurdistan which
present different forms of artwork by Kurdish and non-Kurdish artists help us to recognise them. It gives us an opportunity to appreciate and admire the strength, struggle and power of the Kurdish people.

Road Through Kurdistan took place at P21 Gallery in October 2019. For more information, you can visit their website here.

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