The Risks of Utopia – André Naffis-Sahely

It was W. H. Auden who wrote that “thousands have lived without love, not one without water”, but it is the Iraqi artist Walid Siti who has brought this truism to its visual fruition through his canvases of the river Zei. The Kurdish name for the ‘Great Zab’, the Zei runs from a lake in Turkey and joins up with the Tigris south of Mosul – and is a river that has seen its share of conflicts over the years: for Iraqi Kurds, it is the backdrop to their battles against Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime, and the surrounding mountains – also depicted in Siti’s paitings – was where Kurdish militants hid from the authorities. Siti’s own father, a trade unionist, often took refuge in the very mountains that his son has now depicted in all their imposing bleakness, delivered with an intimacy that is all the more surprising considering his peripatetic existence.

Born in Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan in 1954, Siti studied fine arts in Ljubljana from 1977 until 1982. As Iraq enjoyed good relations with the former Yugoslavia at the time, this seemed a natural choice. But when the Iraqi government complained of Siti’s opposition to its increasing intolerance of minorities, the Yugoslav authorities “pressured him to leave”. Siti was fortunate in this regard; one of his colleagues was deported back to Iraq and spent the next twenty years in Abu Ghraib prison. Instead, Siti was able to relocate to London thanks to the help of a friend, and has lived there ever since. His first years were “lonely”, but he persevered with his art. It was only after the first Gulf War that Siti was able to return to his homeland, once a stable and self-governing Kurdistan had been created in the north of the country. And following 2004, he was been able to visit it with increasing frequency.

And yet the Kurdistan Siti knew in his youth, as he sees it, has now almost disappeared. “We are surrounded by mountains, by rocks, and nobody uses them in construction projects. Nowadays everything is built with cement.” Siti likens the situation in Erbil – the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan – to “a disorganized gold rush”, and while he is adamant that the liberal, market-oriented atmosphere is for the most part positive, he is also aware that “art is not a priority”. In his view, the authorities in Erbil, inspired by Dubai’s meteoric model of development, are in the risk of sacrificing both their culture and surroundings for the sake of profit – an analysis that inspired the title of his forthcoming exhibition, ‘Erbil–Dubai: Chasing Utopia’. Though Siti’s work is currently prized in Dubai, he sees the Emirates’ efforts to assume a leading role in the Middle East’s artistic scene as “creating opportunities for the region’s artists, though I have my reservations.” It is this sceptical, clear-eyed stance – one that focuses on timelessness – which perhaps explains why the largest painting in ‘The River Zei’ exhibition was that of a mountain: a mishmash of grey horizontal lines and vertical black strokes that seem to float on top of the canvas. Siti’s usual palette is monochrome but wonderfully apt: his blues border on the teal, his reds are roanish, rusty, while his whites are dirty. But it is the gritty crayon strokes that captured my attention the most. It was as if they were some alternative illegible script, or alphabet. His river Zei is similarly ghostly: the fading heartbeat of a land chafing under successive droughts and unfettered development. “The image of the river was very haunting for me…how this important natural resource is now under threat. My work feeds from these very basic concerns.” As Rose Issa – to whose gallery Siti is attached and who curated Siti’s latest solo in London – points out, mountains and rivers are among the many “simple shapes or symbols” that Siti employs to “convey energy and counterforce, reflecting his perception of the cyclical and repetitive patterns of life and death.”

Though ‘The River Zei’ exhibition has now closed, Siti’s work is also on display at the Iraqi Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, which was the subject of a recent BBC documentary. Though this was not Siti’s debut in Venice, having previously appeared in 2009, this is the first time that Iraqi artists have exhibited without being ‘ideologically’ approved by their government, something that Siti is “very happy and proud of”. The theme of the Iraqi show is Acqua Ferita, or ‘Wounded Water’ and was a project that took eight years to materialise. Unlike the other artists on display, Siti’s work seems less impersonal, less didactic. ‘His’ Iraq is one that allows nature to speak for herself: one of his installations features a videoclip of a waterfall projected through the middle of a torn banknote, demonstrating Siti’s ability to go past Iraq’s recent sectarian record into a future that can be shared by all; an optimism intrinsic to his personality and artwork alike.

Siti sees himself being able to go back to Iraq permanently in the future, “I’m forging a closer connection to what is happening there. My city recently commissioned a sculpture from me, the concept of which was recently approved.” He recognizes that, as a Kurd, he has been able to enjoy opportunities that are otherwise more limited for Iraqis living in other parts of the country, but that “hopefully, they will have the same opportunities in a few years’ time, in spite of all the chaos”.

‘Erbil–Dubai: Chasing Utopia’, a solo exhibition of works by Walid Siti runs from November 2 until December 5 at the XVA Gallery, Dubai. His work is on display at the Iraq pavilion at the Venice Biennale until November 27.

Walid Siti is represented by Rose Issa Projects, London and the XVA Gallery, Dubai. His work is in the collections of the British Museum, The Imperial War Museum, The National Gallery of Amman, The Victoria & Albert Museum, The World Bank, and the Iraq Memory Foundation.

 André Naffis-Sahely is a poet and translator. His translations of Abdellatif Laâbi’s ‘Le fond de la jarre’ and Frankétienne’s ‘Mûr à crever’ will be published by Archipelago Books in 2012.