Kurdish: In-Between Worlds

Kurdish Contemporary Artists

By Imago Mundi

Kurdistan: In-Between Worlds (2016) by Contemporary Artist from KurdishImago Mundi

In-Between Worlds: the Kurdish Artists on the Imago Mundi Map

In 2009, the Venice Biennale hosted for the first time the pavilion of a people without a nation: Kurdistan, a project which featured 13 contemporary Kurdish artists – many of whom are included in the current collection – who came from the four countries where the major Kurdish communities live today: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, as well as from abroad. It was a pavilion intended to open a workshop-laboratory on the Kurdish identity, borders and language, based on the concept of Planet K,the Kurdistan “planet”,an almost Kafka-inspired metaphor of an imaginary space able to host the Kurdish people, pointing out at the same time the difficulty that such a space could really exist. As if to say, that another planet would be needed for the Kurds to finally have their own territory where to express themselves without limits, prohibitions, wars, conflicts and missing rights.

Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya (Abdo) - Untitled 1, Untitled 2, Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya (Abdo), 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya (Abdo) - Untitled 1, Untitled 2 (2016)

Kurdistan is, in some ways, the tragic representation of the term “utopia”, invented by Thomas More in 1516: a u-topos, a non-space,whose strongest and contrasting characteristics stem from the opposition between its own “possibility” of existence (unquestionable in terms of population: around 40 million people split between several countries,which makes them the largest population in the world without a state) and the political “realities” of the area,which made quite impossible the existence of a Kurdish state entity – except for the Sèvres Treaty of 1920 which gave hope “on paper” for the realization of a Kurdish State, quashed three years later by the Treaty of Lausanne, which definitely drew the geopolitical situation of the Kurdish people, unchanged to this day.

Servet Cihangiroğlu - Mom’s Knot, Servet Cihangiroğlu, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Servet Cihangiroğlu - Mom’s Knot (2016)

From the Mesopotamian plains to the highlands of Anatolia, from the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates to the Mount Ararat, an area that extends over 500,000 square kilometers: this is the geographical profile of the ancient Kurdish land, from where the main rivers of the Middle East spring up. Marco Polo was among the first to mention this territory under this name during his travels. From the 30 to 40 million Kurds – a estimate, since no unitary census has ever been undertaken – divided among the four major countries and spreading also on today’s territory of Armenia and Azerbaijan, of which 1.3 million Kurds have emigrated to Europe only. Only the Iraqi Kurdistan,which is a federal region of Iraq,enjoys a certain autonomy after the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. While the Syrian Kurdistan, known as Rojava, gained after the Syrian civil war a sort of political autonomy, although it is not officially recognized as an autonomous region in Syria.

Hemen Hamid - Untitled, Hemen Hamid, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Hemen Hamid - Untitled (2016)

Khadija Baker - Sing Our Dreams, Blue Beard, Khadija Baker, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Khadija Baker - Sing Our Dreams, Blue Beard (2016)

Before going forward with the story of our artistic explorations on the rough artistic land of the Kurds, a few words about the Kurdish language and the writing in the two dialects and alphabets of this catalogue. Up to the 18th century the Kurdish language was considered to be a Persian dialect. It is thanks to the Dominican friar and linguist Maurizio Garzoni and to his 1787 grammar book that the issue of the Kurdish language identity was raised, leading to the conclusion that Kurdish was an Indo-European language of Iranian origin, with very different characteristics from Persian or other Middle Eastern languages. Today the Kurdish language is divided in two major dialects: Kurmanji (the Northern Kurdish) written in the Latin alphabet and spoken by about two thirds of the Kurds, mainly in Turkey, Syria and by the Kurdish residents in the former Soviet countries, especially in Armenia; and Soranî (the Central Kurdish) which is spoken by Kurds from Iraq and Iran and written in the Arabic alphabet, a dialect which despite being spoken by a third of the Kurds created a particularly lively literature in the last century.

Jwan Khalaf - Syria Is Bleeding, Jwan Khalaf, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Jwan Khalaf - Syria Is Bleeding (2016)

There is also a third group of Southern Kurdish dialects spoken in the Southern part of Iran,which did not become relevant from a literary point of view.The study in mother tongue is allowed only in the cities of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, Iraq, at Baghdad University and in some universities of the former Soviet countries. Given that the Kurdish diaspora from Europe and the United States created a strong Kurdish cultural community abroad, the Kurdish language is taught today at the University of Göttingen, Germany, at SOAS in London, at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and in the USA at Florida State University.

Azad Nanakeli - Awaz (Sound), Destunej (Purification), Azad Nanakeli, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Azad Nanakeli - Awaz (Sound), Destunej (Purification) (2016)

The linguistic approach of this catalogue is based on the criterion of the area of origin of every artist, regardless of the fact that the artists currently live in their native areas or abroad: therefore the biographies written in local language appear in Kurmanji (for the artists originating from Turkey and Syria) and Soranî (for the ones coming from Iraq and Iran).The catalogue’s introductions are written in the corresponding dialects: in Kurmanji (for the texts by Erkan Özgen and Şener Özmen, which refer to the Kurdish area of Turkey) and in Soranî (the text by Aneta Szyłak, that covers the Iraqi part). Finally, given that both texts cover the whole collection, Luciano Benetton’s introduction and ours are translated in both dialects.

Diary Muhammad Osman - Untitled, Diary Muhammad Osman, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Diary Muhammad Osman - Untitled (2016)

Sedat Akdoğan - The Wall 1, The Wall 2, Sedat Akdoğan, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Sedat Akdoğan - The Wall 1, The Wall 2 (2016)

When in 2016 we started our research for the creation of the Imago Mundi Kurdistan collection, with the full support and a very special interest on the part of Luciano Benetton, we had no doubt that the large Imago Mundi basin, thanks to the democratic, trans-national and apolitical spirit of the project, would be the ideal place to host such a project. Contemporary art is in itself subject to non-historicization, it takes place now so it is fresh and still unwritten,so to speak.To research and write about contemporary art is like broadcasting from the hottest spot of the events, it is here and now that everything happens. Starting from such premises, the challenge of creating a map of the contemporary artistic phenomenon in Kurdistan became even greater and more spectacular and stimulating for us.

Hamid Jamal - The Last Supper, Hamid Jamal, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Hamid Jamal - The Last Supper (2016)

We wanted to embark on an unprecedented research in terms of size and purpose, bringing together for the first time in the same project more than 100 Kurdish contemporary artists from the four countries that host the largest number of Kurds – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – and also artists who live abroad. The project seemed even more difficult if we were to take into account the conflict zones of the area (especially the war in Syria, which made the areas inhabited by Kurds practically unreachable and, therefore, increased the risks of traveling in the Kurdish cities of Turkey on the border with Syria) and the lack of available documentation in the art field. Obviously, the Kurdish project of Imago Mundi is not intended to have any political connotation, nor to change frontiers – which it simply could not, even if it were intended to! – or launch separatist messages: in the logic of this project Kurdistan is a land of art and creativity and as such it becomes visible on the Imago Mundi map.

Selman Sincar - Untitled, Selman Sincar, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Selman Sincar - Untitled (2016)

Șerif Kino - Diptych, Șerif Kino, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Șerif Kino - Diptych (2016)

Apart from the collateral event of the Venice Biennale in 2009, we did not know of any other remarkable large-scale initiative1 on the international level, designed to bring to the general attention the Kurdish contemporary artists from the entire area where Kurdish communities live, including the diaspora. Our previous experience in Turkey – where we worked almost a year and a half for the creation of the collection Istanbul Codex which presents 200 Turkish contemporary artists – was a good starting point, which enabled us to include in the Turkish collection 20 Kurdish artists.This was the first window opening on the community of Kurdish artists from Turkey, mostly active in Diyarbakır (Amed in Kurdish), but also present in Istanbul and in other Turkish cities from the South-East.

Savaș Boyraz - Invisible Landscapes, Savaș Boyraz, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Savaș Boyraz - Invisible Landscapes (2016)

The person who introduced us to this area was Erkan Özgen, curator of the Turkish part of this collection, a well-known and transgressive artist, a representative of a generation of artists – among whom Şener Özmen, Halil Altındere and Fikret Atay,to mention justa few – who in the last two decades managed to draw international attention on the Kurdish situation in the Southeast of Turkey through their works and projects. In particular the 2003 video by Erkan Özgen and Şener Özmen, which depicts the two artists – one on a horseback and the other on a donkey – on their way to the Tate Modern (Road to Tate Modern), remains memorable for the ironic approach regarding the quixotic condition of being an artist, and what is more, a Kurdish artist, in Turkey. Both Erkan and Şener speak about the recent troubled history and its consequences on the territory of art in their introductory texts to this catalogue. We would simply like to add that the selection of Kurdish artists in Turkey covers several generations and it is a sequence of flashes on the painful moments, themes of reflection and contemporaneity of artists originating from this area. We should also note that Diyarbakır in particular brings together well articulated and in some cases unconventional contemporary art projects – among them the performance by the Turkish artist Sükran Moral2 staged in 2014, presented also at Contemporary Istanbul. It is an emblematic work which marked a turning point for this region of Turkey where it was finally possible to host projects of this scope and strongly provocative: from a balcony overlooking one of the most famous squares of the city, the artist, dressed as Hitler, barked at passers-by for minutes, a mockery of the custom of dictators to celebrate their victories from balconies.

Bahram Hajou - Untitled 1, Untitled 2, Bahram Hajou, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Bahram Hajou - Untitled 1, Untitled 2 (2016)

Ranji Hikmat - Self-Drawing, Ranji Hikmat, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ranji Hikmat - Self-Drawing (2013)

Another essential window towards Kurdish artists, this time from Iraq, was opened for us in Berlin on a winter afternoon when we met Hiwa K, an Iraqi Kurdish artist and musician,who received us in his studio in Schönstedt Strasse. The meeting was followed by a full immersion in his latest works at that time, including the video of one of his works already showcased at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The video presented a huge bell Hiwa K had made by melting weapons collected from the territory of 30 countries beset by war and transformed from symbols of destruction into a new creation. Hiwa’s studio was at that time also the production room of a video installation, My Fatherʹs Color Period, which showed fragments in black and white of audio-video recordings of music performances from Iraq in the 1980s’ which the artist played in loop on old TVs of that times. It was an unusual sight: all those videos were running at the same time on 4 or 5 old TV sets that also stood out for another peculiarity: several horizontal strips were mounted on each television set indifferent colours.

Jamal Penjweny - Iraq Is Flying, Jamal Penjweny, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Jamal Penjweny - Iraq Is Flying (2016)

This was the way, the artist explained, to obtain a colourful image in the Iraqi world of the 1980s, or rather the discovery of color television. The idea of connecting the Kurdish artists from the North to the ones from the South in a large artistic project such as Imago Mundi was immediately embraced by Hiwa K, who, beyond his projects abroad, continued to be actively involved in Iraq and his hometown, Sulaymaniyah, not only as an artist, but also as an intermediary between the Iraqi Kurdish artists and the artists and curators from abroad. This is how Hiwa K introduced us to Aneta Szyłak, curator at the National Museum of Gdańsk and director of the Alternativa Festival, who was involved for years, among other things, in a research on the Iraqi Kurdish artists. Together with Hiwa K,Aneta had already organized several trips to Baghdad and Sulaymaniyah and her experience was fundamental for our project.Therefore by contacting Aneta, we opened an even wider window on the Iraqi Kurdistan: an extraordinary opportunity to work with and get to know artists of recognized international standing like Hiwa K, Walid Siti, Shirwan Can and Haure Madjid, to mention but a few, but also younger artists whose potential had already been appreciated like Sherko Abbas and Sakar Sleman, who in 2017 represent Iraq at the Venice Biennale. In her documented and beautiful preface to this catalogue, Aneta Szyłak contextualizes the current status of contemporary art in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, Iraq, from a performative perspective pointing to the fact that if this collection inevitably presents a “material” approach through the works made according to the Imago Mundi format, we must not forget the conceptual and performative aspect that defines the current life of Kurdish artists in Iraq.The examples given by the curator in this sense are highly representative to understand the active and conscious role of contemporary art in this area.

Hawar Amini - Untitled 1, Untitled 2, Hawar Amini, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Hawar Amini - Untitled 1, Untitled 2 (2016)

The meeting with Azad Nanakeli, an Iraqi Kurdish artist born in Erbil, the capital city of the current Kurdistan Autonomous Region, Iraq, and for more than twenty years a resident of Florence, Italy, filled a new piece in the mosaic of the Imago Mundi Kurdistan, opening this time probably the most cosmopolitan window of our project.Thanks to his international profile as an “artist of the world”, who participated three times at the Venice Biennale, each time invited on behalf of a different pavilion – the Kurdish one in 2009, the Iraqi one in 2011 and the Iranian one in 2015 – Azad Nanakeli has become, with his wonderful generosity, our link on the one hand to some Kurdish artists from Erbil, in Iraq, and on the other to the Kurdish artists from Syria and Iran who took part in this project. With Azad, Imago Mundi integrated in this collection the expression of a natural communication between all Kurdish artists besides the borders and the wars that cross their country of origin: it is in this way, to make only one example, that female artists of Kurdish origin, among the artists from this area most widely recognized abroad, joined this project. This is case with of Khadija Baker, a Kurdish Syrian Canadian artist, and Parastoo Ahovan, a Kurdish Iranian artist who lives in New York.

Walid Siti - Mountains Can Talk, Walid Siti, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Walid Siti - Mountains Can Talk (2016)

115 contemporary artists from different Kurdish communities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria and from abroad took part in the transnational project dedicated to Kurdish contemporary art in the Imago Mundi collection.The 10x12 cm canvas travelled everywhere, in the four countries, surmounting indescribable difficulties, as well as abroad, across Europe and the USA. It became the messenger of a living history, telling stories about war and resistance, but above all illustrating the in-between condition of the artists, who are confronted with a layered identity: for all of them, to be a Kurd means to have an identity split between their ethnic and their national belonging, that of the country they live in. To this double identity a third one is to be added, that of the memory, and even more for those who live abroad. An identity mosaic put together on the Imago Mundi parchment, pieces of a cross-border dialogue which takes place on a territory without borders, nor wars: that of contemporary art.

Claudio Scorretti Art Advisor, Project Manager Imago Mundi Irina Ungureanu PhD, Independent Curator

Parastoo Ahovan - Homeland, Parastoo Ahovan, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Parastoo Ahovan - Homeland (2016)


Credits: Story

Art Direction, Photography and Production
Project Manager
Claudio Scorretti
Erkan Özgen
Aneta Szyłak
Irina Ungureanu
Barbara Liverotti
Giorgia De Luca
Editorial Coordination
Enrico Bossan
Luciano Benetton
Claudio Scorretti
Irina Ungureanu
Aneta Szyłak
Erkan Özgen
Şener Özmen
Editing and Translation
Emma Cole
Sarah Cuminetti
Valentina Granzotto
Kider Honahr
Houzan Mahmoud
Georgiana Nuțu
Francesca Stopper
Bawer Ucaman
Pietro Valdatta
Art Direction
Daniele Tonon
Marco Zanin
Rozhgar Mustafa - A Scarf and Half, 2015
Special Thanks to
Hiwa K,Kani Kamil,Azad Nanakeli, Walid Siti, Şener Özmen, Sherko Abbas, Rozhgar Mustafa, Houzan Mahmoud, Ramyar Mahmood, Sami Muemin, Ezel Yilmaz, Çilem Akkaya, Bawer Ucaman

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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