The work of Walid Siti traverses a complex terrain of memory and loss, while at the same time offering an acute insight into a world which for him has been a place of constant change. The narrative of Siti’s experience, of a life lived far from but still deeply emotionally connected to the place of one’s birth, is one he shares with many exiles. As an artist, however, he interprets this experience with a clarity of vision which allows him to make its core elements intelligible to what is now a global audience for his work.
Born in Duhok, Kurdistan-Iraq, in 1954, he graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1976 and the following year began to study printmaking at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Two years after graduating he moved to London, arriving there in 1984. These were not simple decisions, however, but the consequences of a complex mesh of circumstances, which meant that Siti, an opponent of the Ba’athist regime, having left Iraq originally to pursue his artistic aims, found himself unable to return there because of his political views, and sought asylum in London.
Working in his London studio, the memory of the mountains surrounding Duhok became for him a powerful symbol of a past which he had lost. They soon began to occupy a crucial role in his work, appearing in paintings, drawings, prints and eventually also three dimensional constructions, in all of which their cone-like shapes form a still centre. In this exhibition, “Silent Mountain” 2013, one of a series of paintings which began in 2010, continues this theme, but also takes it to a new stage. Now, the immutability of the mountain is being challenged, its structure revealed as made up of elements which can shift and change. This is made explicit in “Dialogue of Towers III”, 2013. Here, the central shape is no longer a serene, solid whole but a seething mass of interlocking verticals and horizontals, half of which have slipped away to reveal an inner structure of dizzying complexity. The centre, even the centre of the mountain, has ceased to hold.
What has brought this about? Even the most solid structures, it seems, are subject to the will of man. This, demonstrated most forcibly by the destruction wreaked in Iraq by years of war, continues today as the consequence of “development”, the commercial imperative which sweeps all before it, plunging even Duhok, the birthplace Siti describes as having been “frozen”, into a construction boom. In the “Dialogue of Towers” series of paintings, the meshes of swiftly drawn marks inevitably suggest the scaffolding which surrounds those new buildings, thrown up with so little regard for the culture or history of their locations.
In his paintings, structures and installations Siti shows these forces at work, Siti remembers the ladders, however, and has recreated them in an installation. In the gallery, the home-made ladders, objects from a simpler time, become metaphors for those who, shifting from a familiar past to an unknown future, must struggle upwards alone. Used to change, Siti moves with it, demonstrating its effects with delicacy, wit and an underlying sadness, as his own sense of a lost history merges with the concern that his country’s rush to “reconstruct” may be undermining what had seemed to be unshakeable foundations of human values.
Siti has seen much, and, in his work, clever and elegant, skilful and wise, he shares his insights in a unique and constantly developing visual language of great subtlety and depth. He has much to say, but, as he puts it himself, he does not shout. We would do well to look carefully and, while looking, to listen.