Land on Fire – Francesca Ricci
Francesca Ricci: You came from Kurdistan, Iraq to London, via Baghdad and Ljubljana. How did this route unfold, and what was the reason behind your choice of these places?
Walid Siti: After finishing school in Baghdad in 1976, I wanted to continue my studies as an artist. Although my parents were willing to support me, I wasn’t from a well-off family, and moving to a Western country to live on my own would be a very expensive affair. The choice of Ljubljana was firstly for economics, as Yugoslavia was less expensive than other Western countries, and secondly for visa reasons – from Iraq we had the chance to do a language course, which would temporarily exempt us from military service. This also allowed us to get a passport, which even today is not a straightforward process.
In Slovenia I graduated in printmaking from the Academy of Fine Arts and went on to postgraduate studies. When I finished in 1982, the political situation in Iraq had changed and I couldn’t go back home as I was an opponent to the regime. Also, at the time, Yugoslavia and Iraq were politically very good friends so pressure was put on me and many of my friends to leave. London was the easiest choice as I knew someone here who could help me apply for asylum. I didn’t want to leave – I had many friends there and the people were nice – but the regime didn’t facilitate people like us to stay.
FR: To what extent have politics had an impact on your life and work, not only stylistically, but also thematically?
WS: At college, my work was a bit “everywhere”. I had just come out of Iraq and was impressed by my teacher, the cultural scene in Ljubljana, the different trends coming from magazines. At that stage, my work didn’t reflect my upbringing, although sometimes you could see elements related to that. I was trying to experiment and put all the influences in. Only later did I start to develop my own character, my own line. Of course, even from my time in Baghdad my work has always been influenced by politics, although not directly expressed. After a few years in Ljubljana, the difficult political situation in Iraq and the Kurdish issue brought back the will to be engaged in my work, to express what was going on there. When I came to London, my political views were stronger. Sometimes this can be negative, for when you always want to express something, you can burden the work, but at other times, it gives your work a foundation; it comes from an idea and can say something. But I am glad it has been like that, as it helped me to carry on working at a later stage, going back to my history, my country.
FR: This exhibition includes drawings and paintings, but you started as a print-maker. How did the shift in technique happen?
WS: I have always drawn a lot since print-making and drawing are very connected. It was drawing that gave me a platform to shift slowly towards painting, and it was a very gradual process. I discovered later that painting has different rules; a different temper and different materials are involved, which need different treatment. It was a very slow process from print-making to painting, but the drawing has always stayed and is my most recurrent expression.
FR: Before the mid-1990s, your work is very different in spirit and outlook; it’s bolder, more colourful and diverse. Nevertheless, there are recurring themes and imagery in the recent works in this exhibition. There is a transition from one stage to another, but somehow the different phases are linked, and the imagery comes back in a more abstract way.
WS: I have a two-way relationship with my work: I develop the work, but the work develops me as well, makes me question the techniques I use to express my ideas. My work has become more metaphoric. The elements within the painting have become more condensed, more focused and simplified… perhaps more repetitive as well, because I concentrate on an idea and try to exhaust all of its possibilities before moving on. But even the new stage is connected to the previous one. In the late Nineties I started larger paintings, the landscape became simpler and the colours more monochrome. My recent work has fewer elements than before, but the symbols are repeated.
FR: Stones are one of the most detectable and recurring images, to the point of inspiring the Precious Stones series, which you have explored over several years. The stone expresses the idea of the individual, but also of a collective, communal spirit.
WS: Stones have several meanings in our tradition. There is the stone of the Kabaa in Mecca, but also the stone of the Kurds, part of the mountain that is our only friend. Furthermore, the stone is part of a pedestal, of monuments, arches, and many architectural features. There are so many meanings embedded in stone that life, in a way, starts evolving around it. In the Precious Stones series I explored the idea of this evolution around a central piece. Whatever it symbolises, the stone has some secret, precious meaning with an almost magnetic power over people. It creates movement around it and constructs a relationship between the elements that evolve around it. This mass that drives power between one element and the other also creates an identity, a unified body of a state or society. Within that unity one feels the strength of being part of the whole, while being constrained by the general movement and magnetism that make it difficult to develop as an individual; to pursue one’s own inspiration and dreams. This is particular to Middle Eastern society, where the ethos of family, tribe and loyalty to the group, whether religious, social or economical, is very strong.
FR: Is the series, Family Ties a continued exploration of this conflicted connection between the individual and the community?
WS: I exhibited this work in 2004 in Duhok, my hometown. I come from a very large family, which I visit every two years, and although Duhok has grown from a village to a town, I notice that if anything wrong happens, it affects me whether I like it or not. I started exploring the idea of what it is that brings us together. Together we feel strong, supported and comfortable, safe, but taking a different line from your family is not accepted and suddenly tradition becomes a burden. Many people bring their values and traditions here to London, so that’s why you hear so many conflicts within the family, between the old generation and the new, which grew up in Europe. It is impossible to adapt fully to a new society when tradition plays such a strong role, but one has to understand that the new generation will inevitably be influenced by their upbringing in a different environment. The question is how to strike a balance between family tradition and the society you have moved to. One feels a sense of protection, but also of its limits; it is good to be part of something, but at the same time personal freedom can be restricted by the social structure. The conflict between the generations sometimes leads to dramatic acts where the rebels pay with their own lives. Recently a Kurdish girl was killed as she was in love with somebody that wasn’t her parents’ choice.
FR: This leads to another subject that is important to you – the condition of women within traditional family settings, which you explore in several images of The Seven Sisters, veiled figures that are universal symbols of this condition.
WS: When I was living at home, my father was always somewhere else, either in prison or fighting in the mountains. We were very poor and I’ve always felt much empathy for my mother, sister and grandmother. They had to struggle so hard to look after us. I also began to think that it was unfair on women, and even today things haven’t changed much. Actually, things have gone backwards. In the 1960s and 70s, society was thinking about women’s rights, but with the continuous war, that has disappeared. It is very hard for women to nurture their individuality and pursue freedom and inspiration. Women just go round in circles, entangled in this mass movement or constrained structure. For example, when a Kurdish woman feels unhappy in her marriage, no matter how horrible and unsupportive her husband, when she seeks support from her own family they persuade her to forgive him. There is a sense of helplessness, of nowhere to go, everyone agrees on how women should be treated. This agreement is between families, tribes and even the state. So women are entangled in a sort of conspiracy. The state says there is legislation to protect women, but in reality not much happens. Women always bear the burden of the family.
FR: The series, Family Ties, like Precious Stones, includes drawings and an installation. How was this received and what made you explore a new medium?
WS: I asked myself why I still paint when other media are available. In a way, the image is better represented through photography or video, so if I still paint, what can I do for it to have meaning and significance? What can I do with painting that I cannot with a digital image? I realise that this choice has nothing to do with detail or presentation, but rather with creating an atmosphere or setting that would be difficult to do with a camera. As for the installation, it is a recent attempt. I am open to different media if they serve my purpose and I feel that I can manipulate them. I don’t want to be pretentious and betray my approach, but at the same time I like to have a go at these possibilities. It is the idea that determines the medium. For Family Ties and Precious Stones I felt that the theme could take advantage of this way of expression. The Family Ties exhibition was very well received back home. It was a novelty, as artists are more traditional. Of course some were dismissive, as it was a challenge to their views. The younger public liked the idea very much – some of my relatives could identify portraits of other family members in the work and everybody understood the complexity of the issue.
FR: In your large paintings the idea of the individual and the multitude is very strong. Compared to your previous work the figures nearly dissolve into symb ols.
WS: The main point of focus is the small element in the centre of the composition, a bit like Precious Stones. Being a painting, I try to slow the process. Through the brush, water and acrylic paint, I build up different layers. I give spontaneity a chance – there is some chaos, but in general it is always a controlled chaos. There is more structure and also I am aware of what I can say with this medium.
FR: These large canvases, which you call landscapes, are very theatrical – sometimes they seem to depict a stage. A sense of instability comes across as something is going on that’s unclear. Also, sometimes the threshold between exterior and interior is very flexible. Is this to do with the sense of precariousness that a home might be destroyed at any time?
WS: My main source of inspiration for composition is landscape, but landscape as a stage set where a lot of things happen. It is entangled with the politics and violence of war: the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurdish war and later wars. The landscape is the setting for these huge conflicts, for violence, destruction and upheaval, but the main subject remains undefined. I want to leave it open to interpretation, to reflect the nature of things in my country, where there’s always the possibility of change and everything feels volatile, unstable, undefined and undecided. The boundary between exterior and interior can sometimes be vague – maybe it has to do with the way I focus on an idea, so when I try to create an ambience the subject is enclosed within that interior setting. The idea is that when you lose something, you long for it and recreate it in a surrealist way, so that’s why the set becomes surreal, an imaginary landscape.
FR: The title of the exhibition, “Land on Fire”, suggests that natural elements like water, fire, and earth are very strong and mixed together. These come across powerfully in some of your large canvases, through the colours and texture.
WS: It has much to do with the core elements and the core idea of life. As I explained before, the stone and the mountain are essential to my imagery. The combination of elements makes things go this way or that, and therefore determine life. Fire is a sign of danger, but also of energy – the light of the fire is a sign of hope, and earth is a kind of constant element that you cannot detach yourself from; you can never think that you belong somewhere else, really. This was my first impression of life when I was young, and that always stayed with me.