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Trauma And Politics Behind Walid Siti’s Abstract Art

Every society undergoes change, but many people keep a core idea of their nation and cultural heritage through a strong identification with particular landscapes and narratives. For the Iraqi-Kurdish artist Walid Siti, it is the mountains of Kurdistan that have a deep symbolism. But the mountains in his paintings have a fragility that is unexpected, and it is this sense of vulnerability that is pervasive. His work, “Monument of a Forgotten Story”, part of his “Re-Construction” exhibition now showing at EOA.P gallery in London, shows a ghostly white mountain that appears to be enmeshed within a fretwork of spindly scaffolding. It is like a beautiful creature that is caught in a trap. Here is the story of a nation’s suffering through war and hardship over many years, and perhaps a sense that in the rush to erase the sadness and pull the country into modernity something of its soul has been lost. The mountains that for many Kurdish people have been considered “our only friend” through adversity are seen to an extent to be neglected hostages to fortune in uncertain times of rapid change. Siti’s life and art has been shaped by the trauma and politics of his homeland where he still has a big, extended family that he visits regularly. As a child in what was then the small village of Duhok in Kurdistan-Iraq, he grew up surrounded by the stress and horror of conflict. His father, who was involved in the Kurdish separatist movement, was largely absent as he was either fighting in the mountains or in prison. For his mother, there was a constant battle to raise her six children, five sons and one daughter, against a backdrop of poverty and war. “The mother always has to bear the consequences of hardship. I felt the pain and sadness of my mother who had to look after us and put bread on the table,” he said. “I felt a sense of helplessness as a child; we were a very poor family and we hardly had enough food to eat. After school I worked in my uncle’s shop with my mother to earn a little money to buy bread. There was always some turmoil around or military activity — planes coming and going,” he recalled. “You felt the pain of people all the time; people killed or disappeared — people enrolling in the army; there was such strong emotion everywhere,” he added. At primary school, Siti showed an early talent for drawing, which was recognised and encouraged by his teachers. But in a situation where just scraping an existence was all consuming, art was certainly not a priority. Siti’s family members hoped that he would get a good “professional” job that would provide some security. But his father understood his desire to pursue his studies at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. “He was really kind to me and encouraged me. He said, ‘It’s your choice’,” recalled Siti. Studying in Baghdad in the early 1970s was, he recollected, a time of liberation and intellectual development. “I felt very happy. It was like heaven for me and a relief. I started to change in many ways. Society was very small in my village; you felt trapped in a set of ethics and morals within the family. I always felt I wanted to be something else — a little different,” he said. Having been a very religious person he said he became less religious at this time. He expressed surprise when asked whether he was a Sunni or a Shia. These labels he said had no significance or meaning at that time. “We had no clue about Sunni or Shia,” he said, adding that his Sunni grandmother kept an image of Imam Ali, on her wall. After art school in Baghdad, Siti went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana in what was then Yugoslavia to study printmaking. When the political mood towards Iraqi Kurds turned hostile, he had to flee and sought asylum in Britain in 1984. Gradually, he began to turn to painting, though drawing remains essential to his expression. There are recurring images in his work that reflect his fascination with certain shapes such as cubes, circles, cones and spirals. Ladders, as an expression of striving for something, pyramids, the Ziggurat, and stone in its many manifestations also feature prominently. He has been inspired by the stone of the Kaaba in Mecca. His “Precious Stones” series examines the many meanings embedded in stones that form part of pedestals, monuments, arches and many architectural features around which life revolves. Edifices of stone form pillars of the state and reflect an ordered society that can be both a source of security and suffocation. For Siti, the pull of his homeland is always present, but the way he expresses his thoughts has become more abstract in recent years. “During the Iran-Iraq war my work expressed more directly the sense of pain and loss and there were elements related to more realistic or figurative forms. Slowly that has changed; in the 1990s my work started to become a bit more ‘landscapeish’ and abstract. Then it became more condensed and simplified and I looked for metaphors and symbols that can express in a more poetic and philosophical way the things I want to say,” he explained. Out of the chaos that has engulfed many parts of the MENA in recent years he sees an ongoing struggle where competing ideologies are striving for dominance. All this change is happening alongside rapid development that in some cases has involved a trampling over centuries of tradition and values. There is also extreme violence between communities that he feels will take many generations to heal. Walid Siti’s “Re-Construction” exhibition is currently being shown at EOA.P gallery in London in collaboration with Rose Issa Projects. Siti’s work is in the public collections of The British Museum, The Imperial War Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, The National Gallery of Amman, Jordan, The World Bank and The Iraq Memory Foundation, Washington DC, and Barjeel Art Foundation, UAE.