Hiwa K’s first solo exhibition in the Middle East arrived on the heels of his own homecoming. After more than two decades in Europe, the artist returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in January last year, a decision he calls “career suicide”, but without a hint of regret.
Titled Do you remember what you are burning? the exhibition includes Hiwa’s works from the past 13 years, including his Documenta 14 commission One Room Apartment, a desolate concrete replica of houses built near minefields in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is one of many moving works in the show, works that are also infused with humour and personal elements as the artist inserts himself into the frame, by way of performance, video, and collaborations with individuals and artisans.
“Mostly I start autobiographically. Then in the middle of the work, you realise you’ve been tricked and it’s never about me any more. It’s about ‘we’, slowly,” he says. “So I’m just the point of departure, it’s just [about] starting the work. The connection between the ‘me’ and the ‘we’ is very important. I see myself more like a midwife, helping the baby to come out."
More often, Hiwa reflects on his homeland, Kurdistan, from which he fled at the age of 23. He built his career in Europe, producing works such as Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) in 2017, a poetic reinterpretation of his journey out of Sulaymaniyah and on to Athens and Rome. In the video of the performance, Hiwa walks through European cities balancing on his nose a pole with fastened motorcycle mirrors. As he crosses streets and plazas, he uses the reflections in the mirrors to keep his feet moving and steady.
He also employs the help of labourers, including those whose livelihoods have sprung up as a consequence of war and political oppression. In The Bell Project, Hiwa turns to a man in northern Iraq who collects discarded weapons – from bombs, bullets and rockets to landmines and military car armour, sold to the country by about 40 nations during the Iran-Iraq War – in order to turn them into metal bricks.
The artist’s project reflects on the legacy of war and its ties to the economic interests of certain powers, as well as the transformation of its remnants into new forms. Hiwa’s interest began with the issue of landmines in Kurdistan; Saddam Hussein filled border areas between Iran with the explosive devices to deter the opposing side from entering.
“We have five million people in Kurdistan, and we have more than 20 million landmines, so each person would get about five,” Hiwa says. The idea of the bell was through his gallery in Italy, and it took five years for him to agree to create the work.
Among the artist’s latest work is a commission by Art Jameel titled Destruction in Common, where he has installed a large carpet imprinted with an aerial view of Baghdad. Paired with a meditative audio recording by yogi Shunyamurti, the work sits alongside View From Above, a video that tells the account of a refugee, M, as he attempts to seek asylum in Europe.
In the story, M must pretend to be from another city, a place deemed “unsafe” by the UN, in order for his refugee status to be recognised. Notions of memory and fiction, and the expected narratives displaced peoples must announce for freedom, weigh heavy in the piece.
“When I’m working on these stories, I write them more in a poetic way, because I like to keep a space for the viewer to interpret. They all try to address something important that concerns all of us,” Hiwa explains.
His return to Iraqi Kurdistan seems to come at his own frustration with what he describes as a “defeat” for political activists in tackling global violence, and his perception of his role within the art industry.
“After each show I make, not only mine, but with any political art, the changes are made on a small scale. It’s symbolic and many institutions are benefiting and parasitising on that … The market started to open up for me and my prices went up. It’s the moment you become an industry, and in that moment, you have to make a big decision,” he says. “You cannot address capitalism in your work and still be a part of it somehow.”
Back in his home town, Hiwa is still collaborating, building a plant nursery and working with the local community to create projects around soil, plants and “going back to the body”, hinting at alternative ways of healing and anti-violence. “Maybe activism could be more organic in this way, [it's] not just [about] slogans,” he says.
“The only thing we can do is become nurses. As I said, I used to be a midwife in my artwork, and now I’m a nurse.”
Do you remember what you are burning? is on view at Jameel Arts Centre until Saturday; jameelartscentre.org