The Scope of the Frontier – Rijin Sahakian
October 1, 2019
Meticulous permutations of the mountain ranges that form Iraqi Kurdistan’s physical composition and internal legacy have punctuated, if not fully saturated, the whole of Walid Siti’s works. Sketched on paper, molded into sculptures, constructed out of found materials, they are omnipresent. Free from questions of fashionability, Siti has continually persevered in his quest to work through what grounds his motivation to work, by working through “the mountain.” A structure that, increasingly, can be seen more than as a fixture of home in the mind of the Kurdish imagination, but as the immovable heaviness of consistent pain and trauma, the static nature of violence that has engulfed the region at the other end of Siti’s enduring connection. In this way, Siti’s focus on this terrain has been prescient, its endurance, the inability of a landmass such as this to be crushed under waves of upheaval has inured his work against irrelevance or repetition. Instead, the repetition becomes a reminder, a practice of memory, of always remembering, and always being aware of what is coming.
In The Troubled Bear and the Palace, Siti, for the first time, uses video to capture in grey reality the mountains that he has only, up until now, represented through material in the same palette. In the peaks of the misty range that the camera lingers on, we can see, at this later stage of Siti’s career, a mastery also over a multiplicity of views. The 360 degree panning shots over the desolate range of his subject matter and his own career are unified. What the viewer might initially see as again, the fixation on the mountain as a folk or political symbol, complicates itself against the unfolding story of a solitary bear, a brigade of female peshmerga (soldiers), a crumbling palace, and the peaks not only of the mountains, but of satellite towers, a new symbol here, of economic claim-making, a kind of corporate flag raising on a region that, only a few decades prior, might as well have been a lonely planet.
In fact, it is in this short film that we see, sparingly, the varying, often vying, narratives of the region Siti has spent the span of his lifetime mediating. Early in the film, the cold majesty of the mountains gives way to the ordinary engine purrs and shouts of a caravan of trucks reaching a height adequate enough to deliver exactly one crated, fluffy and impossibly endearing brown bear. The bear is eventually released, its tentative freedom marked with cameras, as well as claps and smiles from the array of military women flanked on each side. The bear’s return to the mountain is juxtaposed with the information that this area is also home to one of Saddam Hussein’s last remaining vestiges to his absolute power during his reign over Iraq, punctuated by all sorts of territory marking/grabbing, not the least being the construction of palaces throughout the country. Here, one of the last crumbling, but still intact.
These shifts of fate, for the bear, Hussein himself, peshmerga forces (particularly female forces), monies and the forces that move them, collide in a kind of fable on the outskirts of one of the most contested regions on earth. There are some characters we know the fate of: Saddam Hussein, namely, and the palaces left in ruin. Others are left in the mist. The bear, who wanders off path, alone and beautifully unaware. The female fighters, perhaps familiar to western audiences, who have been inundated by the public messaging of Kurdish women as strong, fierce fighters, a strategy that mirrored the sudden outpouring of articles circulating about the “strong, western allies” in Iraq – the Kurds. This outpouring of narratives attempting to frame Iraqi Kurdistan -its women and political/military leadership – as western valued (democratic, unveiled), whether or not this was based in fact or fairytales, did not quite matter so much as it was necessary in a larger battle, the invasion and ongoing wars in Iraq and neighboring Syria. In the film, the women are simply doing their job as soldiers here, no more no less, as they are pictured, along with the bear, in this procedural staging of release.
The facts, of course, are difficult. Iraqi women as a whole were some of the most highly educated and professional in the Arab World, though society as a whole was under totalitarian rule. The surge of unprecedented funds and global investment in Iraqi Kurdistan in the past twenty years has made some aspects of the land and its societal makeup unrecognizable from the period when it was first presented to the mainstream after the end of the first Gulf War. The world first became significantly acquainted with Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, when images of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children fleeing Iraq across treacherous mountain paths flooded television screens and newspapers. Back then, it was the betrayal of the United States, who allowed Hussein’s forces to fly over the north and south, quelling rebellion with gunfire and death squads.
In the years that have passed, Iraqi Kurdistan became the safe haven, the no fly zone, the protected north free from ISIS infiltration and the endless bodycounts that swept up the rest of Iraqi civilian life. Multi-million dollar contracts, massive building projects, and infinite businesses swelled as Baghdad and its surroundings burned. Siti, however, has not only lived through these acrobatics, but has been sound enough in his scrutiny of the human landscape to push into the most serious core of what this all might mean, and cost, to the land, to people, but mostly, to his own eye. There are no quick celebrations, there are no celebrations at all, apart from the joy to be found in creating, and reflecting back, a formidable world, in the shape here, in the shadow there, of the mountain, the range as he has come to know it, to visit and revisit it, in all of its complex formations.