Forever an Outsider
CHRISTINE LINDEY feels the loss and suffering which war and exile bring in Iraqi Kurdish artist Walid Siti’s uncluttered abstract works. The Victorian Establishment painter Lord Leighton’s work sold like hot cakes. With his vast fortune, he built a lavishly decorated house in fashionable Kensington. Its showpiece is the Arab Hall. It was built to display his collection of 1,000 precious Syrian tiles, which are set among gilded friezes, columns and contemporary tiles by William de Morgan, surrounding the central pool onto which tinkles a single jet of water. An idyllic calm pervades. Upstairs is Leighton’s massive studio, now hung with ponderous Victorian high art. An unadorned, top-lit space at its far end now houses temporary exhibitions. From dark to light, Walid Siti’s work brings us resolutely into the present, yet, within this context, the legacy of imperial plunder and domination is made sharply evident.
Siti is an Iraqi Kurdish artist who lives in London. Central to his work are the loss and pain which war and exile bring. Here, he focuses on two preoccupations - family ties and precious stones. He tackles the thorniest of issues. How to deal with profound matters without being trite, pompous or illustrational, yet without losing touch with the subject matter. His work is achingly beautiful. Simple geometric shapes and forms such as circles, cubes, lines and pyramids symbolise ideas and convey feelings.
Family Ties (2004-08) consists of 12 works on paper. Most are of abstract shapes, but a few are more explicitly representational of tree roots or of organic forms. In most of them, lines link circles to each other. In one, a central circle is linked to tributary ones with an uncluttered openness, suggestive of exuberant dynamism. In another, so busy are the multitude of lines joining the circles that they form a dense mesh, evoking the oppressive restrictions of cages or prison bars. Family ties, which are so crucial to Middle Eastern identity, can bring joy and comfort, but also restriction and sorrow.
For the Kurdish people, stones signify their native mountains and the stone of mecca. First Was The Stone (2006), is a large painting with a central motif of a dark stone, like a monolith. Is it trapped or is it protected by the transparent oblong structure which encases it? Are the dark blobs which circle this strange monument the heads of a crowd of worshipers, like those at the hajj, or are they purely abstract forms? Ambiguous, contradictory and multilayered, Siti’s work is subtly suggestive rather than simplistically didactic. It straddles the visual traditions of East and West.
Absorbing the Western abstract tradition - itself initially indebted to Islamic art - Siti explores spontaneous mark-making, avoids overlabouring the surface and accepts happy accidents. Yet he also celebrates the rhythmic discipline and complex geometry of Islamic art. His sensitivity to his media give the works integrity. However symbolic his use of abstract shapes, a meaning rooted in direct experience of current political realities always remains. A person in exile is forever the outsider. Siti is an immensely serious and talented artist. It would be a mistake to compartmentalise him solely into a niche marked “Middle East.”