Iraq: Post-Conflict or El Dorado? - Francesca Recchia

 POST CONFLICT OR EL DORADO? (Francesca Recchia - November 2009)



Living in Northern Iraq makes the dimension of post conflict hard to escape.  It is what determines the movement of people, the distribution of international economic support and recently also the debate within the art world.  Political stability opens the frontiers to economic and cultural entrepreneurs.  A society thirsty for innovation and “modernity” is a goldmine and an unexploited market is a promise for huge profits – for both oilmen and artists, it seems.  

The last months have seen two art events in Iraqi Kurdistan.  The first was a two week workshop promoted by Hiwa K. and Aneta Szylak under the umbrella of their estrangement project (  The other was a three day Post-War Arts & Culture Festival organized by Adalet R. Garmiany and ArtRole (  Both Hiwa and Adalet are Kurdish artists who live in Europe (Germany and UK respectively) where they received their education and practice their art.  For bothKurdistan is a homecoming, a source of inspiration, a pool of opportunities.  Yet, the outcome of their visit couldn’t have possibly been more different.  Where one has chosen a rooted and low profile approach, the other has chosen political engagement and big words (spoken by the Prime Minister at the opening of the Festival).   

Iraqi Kurdistan has been suddenly transformed into a platform to perform western debates on what is art and how to make it. Despite an ancient history, Kurdistan is rather untouched by the contemporary art disputes in the West.  Fine Art education is still very conservative and a traditional approach to painting is still the rule.  Cold suspicion welcomes any attempt by younger generations to change thisYoung artists are keen to explore and thirsty for knowledge.  The lack of resources is at times heartbreaking and the role of western intellectual do-gooders depressing.  In the give and take game that every interaction implies, it seems to me that those who are gaining are those who already have.  I strongly resist the philosophy that little is better than nothing, when that “little” becomes the currency to placate our guilty feelings while pursuing our own interests.   

It is in this transaction between do-good, placate guilt and make profit that post conflict becomes an easy horse to ride.  We come from abroad with pre-packaged models, a smart set of catchy slogans and a pile of good intentions.  We have gone to Iraq, we have done art, we have done good.  The spaceship lands, gathers information, praises its own bravery for reaching such a dangerous country, takes off and leaves with an awesome bunch of stories to tell back home.  The illuminated lot in the Western art system – those who have developed an interest for The Third World, for Developing Countries and now The Post Conflict Zones – indulge in their own open-mindedness, nicely oblivious of what is left on the ground after their departure.  Estrangement and Post-War Arts & Culture Festival have thus highlighted the necessity of a serious debate around the motivations, strategies and approaches of art in a post conflict developing country.   

Art heals; art deals with trauma; art unleashes suppressed emotions, joys, pains, enthusiasm; art shapes reality; art reinterprets the world; art is a career; art generates fame; art is a trampoline for further achievements.


 Art can open possibilities. Art can dictate solutions. 

There is nothing new in it.  What is new here is the vertiginous excitement that only virgin territories generate.  The chase for this new El Dorado re-proposes old questions on the ethical and aesthetical stance of artists.  However much the art scene in Iraqi Kurdistan needs support and new oxygen, it definitely does not need glamorous events (with very good organic food) that will address only a limited portion of society.  Art can be an invaluable tool to trigger debate and participation – through seminars and discussions over a sandwich kebab from the corner shop as Hiwa has successfully tried to do.  Relational art doesn’t pay big money and doesn’t give you the front page of newspapers – but it is the only way to make change.  If that’s what art is supposed to be about.  

Of all the economic effort to set up a spectacular Post-War Arts & Culture Festival, the power of Art has still managed to leave me speechless – despite the heavy load of skepticism I was carrying with me.  Adalet R. Garmiany brought to Kurdistan Richard Wilson’s installation 20:50.  I had the chance to see it in Europe twice before – this time it has left me awestruck and reminded me of my love of Art. The installation was exhibited at the same time Iraqi Central Government and Kurdish Federal Government were discussing once again the fate of the oil-rich, disputed city of Kirkuk.  The unintentional echo that the piece managed to resonate reinforced the trust in the potentials of art practice in places where trauma is simply swept under the carpet.  The evocative power of art doesn’t need verbose statements to make a difference.  Opening up spaces of dialogues has to go beyond individual ambitions.   

The post conflict rhetoric, as disturbing as it is, has somehow given me the opportunity to refocus on how art can be used and misused in the name of “community”; on how there is a possibility of creative change and empowerment if the people in the name of whom we make art are our partners and interlocutors rather than our disguise and alibi.





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