When the wild instruments sing, 2015

Sherko Abbas

musical performance, video documentation, 16’40” (screening during the opening night)

“The Wild Instrument” is an ongoing project initiated by Sherko Abbas. The artist developed a musical instrument from a small handmade object called damaqachan [spoke]. In Iraq, damaqachan is a simple toy, constructed from bicycle spokes, nails and matches, which sets off miniature explosions. Abbas’s instrument operates on a similar principle and, when played, issues random sounds resembling explosions. While it has to be operated by a human being, only with difficulty can one control the sounds it will make or anticipate what sort of music can be made with it. Abbas is fascinated with the way the object can acquire a relative autonomy.

Abbas was aware that the Iraqi instrument he was creating was inextricably linked to the realities of war, destruction and violence. But he uses it neither to comment nor to judge, but to demonstrate how the Iraqi culture had absorbed the war and how, as a result, everyday life has undergone a change.

“When the Wild Instruments Sing” was performed in 2014 and 2015 at Goldsmiths, University of London, in collaboration with two contemporary musicians: the improviser and cello player Khabat Abas, and the improviser and composer Hardi Kurda (in 2014 also with Kani Kamil, who played the daf drum).

Abbas also invited Hardi Kurda to his studio asking him to create a graphic notation which, as he hoped, would make possible the discovery of a particular language to which his instrument could respond. Rather than write musical notation, Hardi drew a movement reflecting the way the instrument is played, and named it: “pull and release”.


based on: sherkoabbas.com and information provided by the artist

Music of the Bush era, 2017 Music of the Bush era, 2017 Music of the Bush era, 2017

Music of the Bush era, 2017

Sherko Abbas

video, 7’03”

[…] Nearly two hundred years after Beethoven wrote his “Egmont” overture, a young Kurdish cello player Khabat Abas was invited by Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra to join them in rehearsals. The moment was very special. It was the year 2003 and American invasion had just ended Saddam’s rule over Iraq. The Baghdad Philharmonics was quite unexpectedly invited to Washington to play a concert at the Kennedy Center along with the American National Symphony Orchestra. Special attention was put into bringing musicians representing diverse Iraqi ethnicities, even if they were not actual members of this orchestra. Thus, Khabat packed her belongings and traveled to Baghdad, carrying not only her cello but also an H8 camera. […]

On November 9th 2003, in front of George W. and Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, they play the concert, including the monumental and solemn “Egmont” overture, mourning the death of Lamoraal. Before the concert, Colin Powell gives a speech on democracy and peace. Two orchestras meet on the stage to give an impression of human unity and musicians belonging to two nations that had just clashed in the war play together. This is a moment of celebrating political hegemony, when it had already been externally decided when and under what conditions Iraq would become a democratic and capitalist society, and the carefully selected members of the two nations arrive as a promise of peace. […]

The concert is over and the group returns to Iraq soon after. However, later, presented with the possibility, many musicians who tour foreign countries with the orchestra, run away, seeking refuge in the West. Khabat also left for Europe and nobody knew where the footage from her trip might be. She thought that it was long lost, and so did her family. It is only recently that her brother Sherko Abbas found the long-lost material in the family archive, and the footage became a basis of his new work “Music of the Bush Era”. In the work, he juxtaposes, on two parallel screens, the archival footage from his sister’s tape and contemporary recordings, to tell the story of the unlikely trip she took, including the perspective of the female cameraperson vis-à-vis propaganda. […]

Abbas takes on both private memory and culture with its resources to tackle the issue of the false image of Iraq and the sonic sphere of power relations in the war zone. For this reason, he returns to learn about art and culture in archival materials. His interest is personal, not general. Family is the key element here, it is still first and foremost a personal experience of Khabat, involved in exploring and showing the data coming from the country where heritage is destroyed and possibility of being safe limited. […]


excerpts from the essay Hegemony. Sostenuto, ma non troppo. On Sherko Abbas’s ‘‘Music of the Bush Era” by Aneta Szyłak, published in the catalogue of the “Archaic” exhibition, the Iraq Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017

Paper Puppet Testimony, 2019 Paper Puppet Testimony, 2019 Paper Puppet Testimony, 2019

Paper Puppet Testimony, 2019

Sherko Abbas

video, 8’12”

The Kurdish uprising of 1991 against the venomous dictator Saddam Hussein continues to be an important historical event for all Kurdish people. It was the day that marked the defeat of the Ba’ath regime in Kurdistan’s cities. Each year, video footage showing the exact moment that people broke into the notorious prison in Sulaimani is shown in commemorative TV shows on Kurdish channels. Amna Suraka – The Red Prison (or Security Prison) – was a dreadful building in the middle of the city. It stood out as a symbol of terror and oppression, for many years; hundreds of Kurdish men and women were tortured and killed there by the dictator. […]

[Sherko] has a vague memory of the day of the uprising in front of the Red Prison. He remembers seeing a caravan full of colourful women’s clothes, contraceptive pills, and other objects. […] When he saw the caravan he was almost 11 years old. The event left its mark on him, and years later he decided to probe further into this story. Since 2008 Sherko has been searching for clues to help him get to the bottom of this mystery. The caravan could be seen in the courtyard of the prison for only a few days of the uprising. Afterwards, it disappeared without a trace; hardly a memory of it remains.

The Red Prison has now been turned into a museum […]. But the parties behind the transformation of the building were biased and they focused exclusively on the memories of the political prisoners belonging to their own parties. The entire history of the place’s female prisoners was erased. The plight of those women and the mystery of the caravan were ignored, included neither in the memory of the building nor in the commemorative TV shows. These women might have been raped, and the political establishment does not seem to be willing to confront it.

This issue has become a concern for Sherko, and he raises important questions as to why the rape of political prisoners should be treated with shame. Why are their sacrifices belittled and erased?

His experimental documentary, entitled “Paper Puppet Testimony”, recounts the stories of Kurdish women in the Red Prison. In his video, Sherko tries to bring their stories back into the realm of politics, art, and culture. He is interested in stories that are easily forgotten, and he wants to give them a platform to be narrated and incorporated into official memory.


excerpts from the essay Paper Puppet Testimony by Houzan Mahmoud, full version of the essay is available online at: http://sherkoabbas.com/?p=1238

What is July doing?, 2010

Sherko Abbas

video, 2’50”

camera and editing: Saman Jalal performance by: July Adnan

The work is built on a tension between a girl’s subtle and delicate silhouette and a considerable burden strung on her hair, which she manages to lift. July appears in an empty fitness club, and her exercises create a strange formal dissonance in these predictable and obvious surroundings.


based on: sherkoabbas.com

Divine text, 2017

Halgurd A. Baram

text-based video animation, 2’30” (loop)

The question raised by the Islamic-text-based work “Divine Text” has little to do with parsing religion and the visual thrill someone may experience on facing Islamic calligraphy. Instead, it deals with the hidden and unconcealed political meanings that reside in-between Islamic scripts. This artwork consists of camouflaged Islamic words and verses in the shape of animated tanks, rockets, military machines, and other tools of war. While Islamic calligraphy in itself is supposed to bestow aesthetic and spiritual pleasure, that is not what the artist represents. Based on the challenging history which the artist’s nation was subjected to by those who, seeing themselves as Khalifa of Allah, threaten and kill others, Baram believes that Islamic script has lost its real meaning and, nowadays, has more to do with threat rather than thrill.

In its visual aspect, the work captivates the viewer with a seductive pattern resembling beautiful lace, pulling us in closer through the monotony of its movement. However, the image is accompanied by a disturbing sound – rhythmic noises reminiscent of hitting a drum, the ticking of a clock mechanism and the clatter of a machine interweave with a monumental male voice chanting 99 Names of God (99 Attributes of Allah). The same names appear sequentially on the tank tracks visible on the left side of the frame.

In Baram’s animation, the moving text becomes a tool of propaganda, a perpetual motion machine showing the mutual relations between politics, threats, aggression, religious foundations, words and beauty.


based on the text and information provided by the artist

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The Bell project, 2007-2015/2019

Hiwa K

object, casting obtained from melted war metal waste, rope, wooden construction 180 × 226 × 150 cm, about 300 kg

NAZHAD AND THE BELL PROJECT – two-channel video installation: “The Bell Project Iraq”, 2007–2015, video, 26’03”, “The Bell Project Italy”, 2007–2015, video, 35’43”

The work connects two places in all respects distant from each other – the wasteland in northern Iraq, and a church in Italy. Resulting is a bell cast from war metal waste. The creative process included preparing raw metal in Iraq, transporting it via land and sea to Italy, casting the bell in an Italian foundry, displaying the bell in a church and accompanying activities, such as lectures, performances and publication.

The project was inspired by the life story and activity of a Kurdish entrepreneur named Nazhad from a settlement south of Sulaimani, who turned his childhood passion for melting metal into a source of income. His business professionally recycles battlefield waste and makes metal ingots which are subsequently sold as production material all over the globe. Nazhad’s entreprise raises controversy, as the business that made him a rich man would not have been possible without the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) and both Gulf Wars (1991, 2003).

In the first video – “The Bell Project Iraq” – Nazhad gives us a tour of his work and his life. We become familiar with the breadth of his years’ long, practical expertise and knowledge of both the metal itself and the circulation of the original weapons from which it is obtained. In the video for “The Bell Project Italy” we observe the process of creating the first version of the bell, produced in an Italian foundry and later presented in the main exhibition of the 56th Venice Biennale (2015).

Białystok’s Arsenal Gallery presents the second version of the bell, cast in a Polish foundry from scrap metal obtained from the ammunition resources of the Polish army, which allows us to consider the issue of economic profit gained from arms production in the domestic context. For the first time the bell was shown in 2019 at the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw as part of Hiwa K’s individual exhibition “Highly Unlikely but not Impossible”.

History knows of cannons being made out of melted church bells in times of war, when access to bronze was limited. Hiwa K effected a reverse transformation: the metal used previously for making arms and weapons was given the form of a bell. The artist encourages the public to swing the bell, so that our physical effort translates itself into the expression of solemn sounds of present-day wars.

The Bell Project Italia (video)
The Bell Project Iraq (video)

based on: hiwak.net and zacheta.art.pl

Her voice, 2015

Kani Kamil

video (direct-to-camera performance), 4’31”

object accompanying the video work, wood (stick and bowl), metal, artist’s hair, 88 × 11 × 8 cm

I have made an object enabling me to make music with my own hair, to make a sound, sound art and experimental music engaged with gender and feminism. I use my own hair to “give voice” to the experience and culture surrounding Kurdish women.

The instrument is made out of objects used by women in our society in their daily work – a wooden stick, used for making Kurdish bread, and a bowl. These object’s shapes also have clear sexual overtones (as does the architectural form of the mosque).

The performance “Her Voice” has two aspects. One of them is the idea behind the work, expressed by experimental sound-making in protest against the patriarchy, depression and devaluation in my country – Iraq. The other is the function of the object: I use this bowl for ecological reasons. I place inside my single hair so as to make a sound with my fingers. If the hair breaks, I attach another one without tearing my hair out, in order to continue my performance.


Kani Kamil

based on: kanikamil.com

Rubber, 2009

Shirwan Faith

video, 12’12”

In 2009, Shirwan Fatih collected old erasers from children in six different classes of different grades in an elementary school in Kurdistan. In exchange, he gave the pupils new erasers. The old ones were then sorted, class by class, and installed sequentially on a gallery floor, lined up from the first to the sixth year. As years progress, the use of the erasers is diminishing, as if the corrective impact of the educational system required schoolchildren to adapt to institutional demands. “Rubber” captures the struggle, on a material level, between demands and responses to them, between perfection and modality. It also reflects on what is missing, what never reached the eye as a possibility or opportunity that had no chance to develop a shape.


based on: Alternativa. Estrangement. Guidebook, Instytut Sztuki Wyspa, Gdańsk 2011 63

Tunning Body, 2016

Rebeen Hamarafiq

video, 18’08”

“Tunning Body” is a direct-to-camera performance, during which the artist performs a dance with reed sticks of different lengths. On the one hand, it resembles martial arts training or even a war dance and, on the other, a form of movement therapy. Wild, intense, and free expression of the body conveys tensions, feelings and emotions that cannot be described in words, and result from past traumas and a life lived in a state of emergency and constant readiness. The sound dimension of the performance is disturbing too. Hollow reeds, used to make traditional Kurdish shimshal flutes, make a drawn-out, whistling, whizzing or even whipping noises. Sometimes the artist uses his instruments as drums, by striking a fast, nervous rhythm or by generating single beats. Hamarafiq builds a relationship between his body and architecture. The performance takes place in an empty hall of a post-industrial building formerly housing a Tobacco Factory in Sulaimani and nowadays serving as a cultural center. The work shows tension between violence, dance and sound. The body takes position among these complexities, reflecting the reality of Kurdish society in Iraq.

“Tunning Body” grew from an experiment with body and sound, devised for the exhibition “Clamor” at the Institute of Fine Art in Sulaimani (2016), where the work was shown as a video documentation of the actual performance. “For the first time I did the performance live and in front of an audience for the project Space21 [Sound Art Exhibition, Sulaimani and Erbil, 2018 – editor’s note]. This opens up possibilities for many other directions in which the work can develop. Simultaneously, it records layers of politics and history embedded in different locations,” Hamarafiq says.


based on: http://www.gulan.org.uk/portfolio-item/rebeen-hamarafiq/ and https://space21.nu/?page_id=335

Dropping, 2014

Rebeen Hamarafiq

video, 8’38”

“Dropping” is a direct-to-camera performance by Rebeen Hamarafiq. Drops of milk fall at regular intervals onto the naked head of the artist filmed against a black background. Within a few minutes a small puddle of milk is formed on the top of the artist’s skull, and a thin trickle runs down his weary face. What we see is an obvious reference to the so-called Chinese water torture, in which cold water is slowly dripped onto the victim’s head. Seemingly mild and “humane”, deprived of spectacular violence and blood-shed, it is in reality painful, mentally debilitating and considered one of the most effective.

At the Arsenal Gallery power station, Hamarafiq’s video is installed in a space below the level of the exhibition – the basement area symbolizing a torture chamber or prison, but also the humiliation of the victims of the abuse. The theme of torture often appears in the works of Kurdish artists, which has an obvious connection with the history of their nation and the painful experiences of their families and friends.

The motif of dripping milk also refers to Hamarafiq’s experience of fatherhood. The artist looked after his newborn daughter while his wife was working toward her university degree. Attempting to cope with a new situation, weary with the day-to-day monotony and challenges, the artist was also haunted by fear for his daughter’s future. It stemmed from, on the one hand, the artist’s memories of his own difficult childhood in Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein and, on the other, his desire to protect his daughter from experienced by Kurdish women sense of being unable to break through limiting social, religious and cultural circumstances.

I am similar to my father, 2013

Rozhgar Mustafa

video, 2’46”

The video piece “I Am Similar to My Father” was the final project of Rozhgar Mustafa’s graduate studies at the Chelsea College of Arts in London. It includes nine headshots of the artist, speaking, laughing, crying and gesticulating. Initially calm and serene, the video becomes increasingly noisy and dark. Multiplied voices overlap, creating an unintelligible cacophony. Through conventional English phrases: “flower, nice flower”, “I’m quite similar to my father”, “nice to meet you”, “I’m good”, one can hear, spoken with increasing tension, until the final tears in the eyes: “I was just fourteen!” and “she was just seven- teen!”. The video, with a clearly feminist meaning, addresses domestic violence against girls and women, and the issue of honour killings in the Kurdistan region and in Iraq as a whole – both sanctioned by tradition and custom.

In 2016, in the traditional Shaab Teahouse in Sulaimani, known as an informal centre of intellectual and cultural life, Rozhgar presented two works tackling violence against women. The videos screened were “I Am Similar to My Father” and “Baqwrbantm” [I Sacrifice Myself for You]. The latter video features a headline from a Kurdish newspaper reporting the murder of an anonymous woman. The presentation was accompanied by the artist’s meeting with a nearly exclusively male audience. Mustafa recalls: “Most of the people who come to the teahouse are unaccustomed to video art and performance pieces. So as well as discussing issues affecting women in the Kurdistan region and in Iraq, my works were introducing a new kind of artistic experience, that challenges the daily habits of the teahouse.”


based on: Plastic Women and Teahouses: interview with the artist Rozhgar Mustafa, https://ruyafoundation.org/en/2016/12/4123/

Constructing Mountain II, 2020 Constructing Mountain II, 2020 Constructing Mountain II, 2020 Constructing Mountain II, 2020 Constructing Mountain II, 2020 Constructing Mountain II, 2020 Constructing Mountain II, 2020 Constructing Mountain II, 2020

Constructing Mountain II, 2020

Walid Siti

installation, xps, wood, 4.5 × 13 × 5 m, 100 kg

Walid Siti’s installation references mountains as an important element of the geographical and political landscape of both Iraq and Kurdistan. The area inhabited by Kurds, which they see as their imagined autonomous state, is currently divided between four countries – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. In the past, the mountains were also divided into separate territories controlled by warring Kurdish guerillas, they delineated conflict areas, and witnessed fratricidal fights, including those between the supporters of Masud Barzani and the allies of Jalal Talabani.

“Constructing Mountain II” is a mountain outline cut out of thick board and supported on both sides by an aggressive structure, a kind of irregular lattice constructed out of wooden slats. It symbolizes the above mentioned divisions and the impossibility of bringing about a unity of interests, language and political agenda. It also shows a complicated network of forces pressing upon Kurdistan or, more broadly, Iraq. The form of the artwork itself brings to mind building solutions used on local construction sites – erecting formwork or scaffoldings out of shabby poles and sticks, doomed to destruction or liquidation, and evoking general impermanence.

“Mountains are metaphorical threads connecting memories to physical forms thus consolidating what in my practice is imaginary. The motif weaves in and out of my work, serving as a medium enabling me to deal with social, political and cultural issues. Constructing Mountain II, 2020 is drawn from memory pared down to its essence, so that it can be used as a means of projecting an idea of a world in a constant state of change. The work conveys the concept of a shift from a former position of a monumental physical shape to a complex visual contemporary form, with the ensuing transformation from order to disorder and vice versa. The process is a metaphor for life itself, moving from the violence of birth to the struggle for existence to the final monumental transformation amidst a fragile and troubled land- scape,” the artist writes.

Untitled, 2017 Untitled, 2017 Untitled, 2017 Untitled, 2017 Untitled, 2017 Untitled, 2017

Untitled, 2017

Sakar Sleman

9 drawings, pencil and ink on cigar paper, 19 × 17.5 cm (frames: 27.5 × 27.5 × 1.5 cm)

collection of S.M.A.K., the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent, Belgium

In 2008 Sakar Sleman exhibited a series of drawings about childbirth at the Sardam Gallery in Sulaimani. Some of them were presented later in the “Archaic” show at the 57th Venice Biennale’s Iraq Pavilion (2017). As written by the art historian Kalliopi Minoudaki for the “Archaic” catalogue, these intimate and visceral drawings express the “trauma of childbirth” with a “rudimentary language of the body.” The artist used “a vocabulary of perfect and imperfect circles” to highlight “bodily estrangement, duplication and rupture.” The physical trauma that women undergo during childbirth is not easily talked about in Kurdistan. Nonetheless “it was clear to everyone what the works were about,”, says Sleman, “even my friends who weren’t artists understood them and empathised.”

Especially for the Venice Biennale Sleman produced a new work (untitled, known as “Land Art”, 2017). Using soil and stone from the Kurdish mountains near her home she created a subjective diorama of the world (which was also a model of the untitled/“Land Art” installation from 2014, originally a white, circle- shaped form made of stone and ground chalk, 17 metres across, located on a mountainside near Sulaimani). It was supposed to serve as a meditation on nature as the origin of mankind and the artist’s relationship to it. The installation was accompanied by the series of 9 untitled drawings (2017) which are presented in the exhibition “May Flames Pave the Way for You” at the Arsenal Gallery power station in Białystok. Their abstractness, seen in recurring references to the circular shape, is linked to Sleman’s preoccupation with women and their unheard voices in society.


based on: ruyafoundation.org/en/, passim

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