In 2008, the curator Aneta Szyłak and the artist Hiwa K founded Estrangement, a series of workshops for artists in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. In this essay written ten years later as the introduction for Ruya Notebooks #2, Szyłak reflects on the challenges of this innovative project.
Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes around in another form. ― Jalaluddin Rumi
The following set of texts selected by Hiwa K and I reflects over ten years of collaboration and sets the theoretical backdrop for our companionship, readership, tutorship and curating. It has grown from the making of ‘Estrangement’, an educational art project which took place over several sessions between 2008 and 2012 in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Our aim was to stimulate the contemporary art scene in the country, while developing a visual language that was drawn from everyday life. After our initial fieldwork in the KRI, we organised several ‘Estrangement’ workshops with artists in Sulaymaniya and two eponymous exhibitions at the Showroom, London (2010) and the Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdansk (Alternativa 2012). We also published the reader Estrangement as an outcome of our practice and thoughts edited by Francesca Recchia.
Traveling between Europe (I am Polish and Hiwa is based Berlin) and Iraq, we worked through various ideological and colonial inventions of the East – the “Middle” or “Near East” and “Central” or “Eastern Europe”. We tried to challenge usual geographies by shifting our sense of belonging. Belonging is in our views not a stable point of reference but a temporary space in which pressing issues can be embraced. Our struggle was to learn, to provide practical knowledge and to seek grounding in this co called “transcultural collaboration”.
How? Our plan was not pre-defined, it developed through trial and error. We studied the topics that we felt were urgent in Iraq and also ones that emerged slowly as a result our research. We sought non-hierarchical modes of disseminating new forms and ideas. We tried to resolve how to deal with one’s own culture and how to communicate it beyond the existing narratives and preconceptions. Our workshops were informal. The assumption for it was not to “teach” anybody contemporary art, but make it happen by interpersonal friction, influence of local context and group activity. With the workshop participants, we became a community in formulation, struggling with known and unknown dialectics to find an embodied language for being together.
Hiwa and I held the artist workshops in places that were meaningful for the community such as political prisons, artist-run spaces, historic and memorial sites. We all talked, read and walked together through the streets of Sulaymaniya, Erbil and Halabja. Through our everyday interactions, we tried to find other possible meanings for these sites. We wanted to ‘merge’ with the context by creating a friction with the world, shifting perspectives and presences in space and time. Our aim was to actualize our practice as artists and curators within the current context of Iraq. We saw ourselves as part of this context, and aimed to shed any calcified meanings and facts about Iraq. We worked not as external experts but those equipped with their doubt.
We were then discussing, how to make a statement. We sought to resolve the archaic associations of Iraq, often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” and “Mesopotamia”. It seemed the world cared more about Iraq’s antiquities than its people. We discussed the burdens and challenges of tradition. While these are a valuable resource, they shouldn’t be restaged over and over again in Iraq’s contemporary culture. As well as the ancient, modern figurative and abstract painting traditions prevailed as an artistic form in the country. Conceptual art had not developed in Iraq, nor was it recognised by its educational and artistic institutions. Many questions also centred around the postcolonial condition in Iraq. How can artists associate with their own culture, while also fighting fixed images of it? How to respond to the social implications of the rapid implementation of capitalism in the KRI after the fall of Saddam? How should we update the visual arts curriculum so that younger generations of artists are prepared for the times ahead? For contemporary visual artists in Iraq, the challenge was to integrate these existing artistic skills, prevalent cultural traditions with the contemporary condition in Iraq.
Thus, these selection of texts; are intended on developing an artistic form that is drawn from everyday life in Iraq. This artistic form should be responsive to the loss of material culture and the decline of a traditional communal way of life. At the same time, it should remain attentive to what is distinct in Iraq and calls for the artist to embrace that. The focus should be on renewing the context. It explores how the inclusion of the quotidian in visual practice can expose what Iraq is today. Equipped with this shared interest in everyday forms and situations, we tried to find forms and materials that were vernacular to Iraq, and searched for possible visual solutions to what we encountered. In other words, we did not arrive as a structural solution but as a tactical ever-changing guerrilla.
During the Estrangement project, while walking and talking, looking at the city from the height of a hill, studying places of torture, genocide and imprisonment, drinking tea, eating and swimming by the dam, we searched for a language that could allow us to embrace our condition. This Notebook is a set of practical and theoretical material that is meant to facilitate transformation of an art scene with the use of vernacular forms and mutation of perspective made day after day.
We hope that this set of texts will support a conversation among artists in Iraq, as well as the ability of finding the means for the mode of working that we discovered a while ago. It worked for us.
Hereby, I would like to thank Hiwa K for introducing me to his country with unusual guidance and generosity.