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May flames pave the way for you

Contemporary kurdish art



The Kurdish art scene has been developing in particularly strenuous political and economic conditions. The long-term pressure of neo-liberal economy, the as yet futile dreams of an autonomous state, the innumerable international Kurdish diaspora, and the characteristic shortage of any conceptual watershed experience on the scene have all had significant impact on social life and crucial artistic attitudes.

The title of the exhibition – “May Flames Pave the Way for You” – references the case of artists burning paintings in the streets of the Iraqi city of Sulaimani* in the 1990s, a time when many artists of the older generation had already left the country while the younger generation sensed a depletion in the formerly used language of art, given the geopolitical positioning of a state troubled with war and insurgence. The dramatic demonstration became an announcement of an artistic breakthrough, as it were, comprising a breakaway from continuing modernist tradition, quest for inspiration in daily life practice, and use of the visual vernacular.

Emotional transformation associated with experiencing history and the varying paths of individual memory, coupled with changes brought by the Iraq War to daily life and the society are a major component of the exhibition. While developing a new language of art in a country ravaged by war and the social experience of struggling for economic survival is particularly difficult, it did produce a number of vital works and introduce a number of major characters to the art scene. Exhibition-related research spanned many years from the year 2007 onwards, i.a. thanks to workshops delivered in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan by me and Hiwa K, an internationally renowned Kurdish artist residing in Berlin; the majority of artists showing their works at this exhibition were active participants of these workshops.

Artists presented at the exhibition are in their thirties and forties; most have had the opportunity of studying abroad, chiefly in Germany, the United Kingdom, or Scandinavia. Some have returned and are teaching at art schools, while others remained in the diaspora. Invitees include the following: Hiwa K (Berlin), Sherko Abbas (Manchester), Kani Kamil (Manchester), Shirwan Fatih (Sulaimani), Rebeen Hamarafiq (Sulaimani), Rozhgar Mustafa (Sulaimani), Sakar Sleman (Sulaimani), Walid Siti (London), Halgurd A. Baram (Sulaimani).


Aneta Szyłak, exhibition curator

translated by Aleksandra Sobczak-Kövesi


Aneta Szyłak

A curator, art theorist, institution maker and writer based in Gdańsk, Poland. Recently she has been responsible for the making of NOMUS (New Art Museum) – a branch of the National Museum in Gdańsk. Previously, Szyłak founded and directed the Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art (1998–2001) in Gdańsk and the Wyspa Institute of Art (2004–2014), housed in the former Gdańsk Shipyard. In the years 2010– 2016 she was the artistic director of the Alternativa International Contemporary Visual Art Festival in Gdańsk, and in 2017 – the artistic director of the 9th Festival of Art in Public Space OPEN CITY in Lublin.

Over the past 20 years, she has curated numerous and often groundbreaking contemporary art exhib- itions and festivals, including: “Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women’s Art in Poland”, Sculpture Centre, New York (2003); “Estrangement”, The Showroom, London (2010) and at the Alternativa Festival, Gdańsk (2011); “The Field is to the Sky, Only Backwards”, ISCP, New York (2013); “Hito Steyerl: Abstract”, Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdańsk (2014); “What’s Plain Invites Pattern”, Alternativa Foundation, Palermo (2015); “Vernacularity” at the Alternativa Festival, Gdańsk (2015); “Damage and Loss” at the Alternativa Festival, Gdańsk (2016).

Szyłak has written extensively on contemporary art theory and contemporary artists. Her works include: ‘Curating Context’, in: The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating, ed. by J.-P. Martinon (London: Bloomsbury, 2013); ‘Sherko Abbas: The Music of the Bush Era’, in: Archaic, the exhibition catalogue for the Iraq Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale (Milan: Mousse, 2017); ‘Tactics of Arrival/Means of Knowing’, in: Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet: The Works of Hiwa K, ed. by A. Downey (Walther König Verlag, 2017).

She has lectured and worked as a guest tutor in New York’s Bard College, the New School, Queen’s College and New York University, as well as at Dutch Art Institute in Arnhem, Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and – as doctoral fellow – at the University of Copenhagen. She was a visiting fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA) in Antwerp and a visiting professor at the Academy of Arts in Mainz. Currently she is a final-stage doctoral researcher, completing her PhD thesis, Curating Context. The Palimpsest on the Quotidian and the Curatorial, within Curatorial/Knowledge at Goldsmiths in Lon- don and the University of Copenhagen.

Artists participating in Sherko Abbas’s musical performance “When the Wild Instruments Sing”, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2015:


* We are using the name ‘Sulaimani’. The official name ‘Sulaymaniyah’, transcribed from the Arabic, is considered offensive by the Kurds. The city’s name in Kurdish reads ‘Silêmanî ’.

The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage

Co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland from the Culture Promotion Fund drawn from fees charged in games under state monopoly, as stipulated in Article 80, section 1 of the Gambling Games Act of the 19th of November 2009

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