Walid Siti, A Working Grid of Blurred Lines – Rijin Sahakian
If you have seen any of Walid Siti’s work, it is almost instantly recognizable. This is not to say that his work is repetitive, monotone, or narrow, though one will find similar structures across works, often employed with a staid palate of creams, gray, and charcoal, and a zeroing in on subject matter that rarely encompasses an artist’s entire oeuvre. Far from becoming lethargic, Siti’s ongoing focus points to a kind of investment in exploring subject matter and experience that is both sacred, personal, and increasingly common. These are notions of land, personal connection, belonging, and the inherent violence – and dreamscapes – of nation building and migration. While these subjects have become a kind of fad amongst a segment of global art curators, biennales, fairs, and funders, Siti’s work has explored these subjects with a contemplation and understated precision for more than three decades.
These are for Siti also lived experiences. Hailing from the city of Duhok in northern Iraq, Siti was initially trained in the arts at Baghdad’s famed Institute of Fine Arts before continuing his studies in Slovenia. While many of Iraq’s foremost artists graduated from the Institute and have been studied through the lens of modern Iraqi and Arab art, at first glance Siti’s work bears little bearing to much of what marked this era of work. There is no Arabic script, no use of colour. There is however, a very specific use of (Iraqi) place from the ziggurat to the mountain, albeit in somewhat abstracted form. Siti’s highly personal style parallels his specific interests. How else to examine such broad and impossible to contain subjects like “home” or “war”? Siti finds a way through the hundreds of small marks, strokes, pieces of twig used to contain without constraint.
The evolution of Siti’s physical meditations are not made through brash structures or loud proclamations. There are no instructions for viewing, no directives, no script. However, and especially when taken collectively, his works compose a kind of essay of experience that lingers somberly, and demands a quiet sobriety when viewing. Still, Siti’s works are a joy to look at, to spend time with. A joy that comes from experiencing works that are both visually and emotionally rich, detailed with confident purpose. The almost graphic paintings of interconnected lines mapped across mountain ranges, spun webs of crayon around a ziggurat, the clashing of plaster and glass around a center that is no more, each work on paper or sculptural, presents an intricate, abstract, and wholly immersive scene.
These scenes have, no doubt, come from Siti’s back and forth relationship with the country and city of birth he left behind. Siti found asylum in the UK in 1984, but his subject matter remains firmly entrenched in the landscape, and continuing scope of events, that have unfolded in Iraq and today’s Iraqi Kurdistan. Semi-autonomous since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1992, Iraqi Kurdistan was constitutionally ratified in 2005 following the US invasion of Iraq. This was no small event, considering the persecution of Kurds regionally and in their quest for recognition and a homeland. Having suffered for decades under Saddam Hussein’s rule (a condition not exclusive to the Kurds but marked most horrifically by chemical use during what was called the “Anfal campaign” and subsequent massacre), autonomy was enthusiastically welcomed, to say the least. With autonomy, however, come all the trappings of the state within a complex and still war-torn nation.
This break, from the dream and longing for home, to the realities of nationhood in times of war and uncertainty, is firmly made in Siti’s most recent work. His previous paintings, rooted in the connective tissue that underlies the body of the Zagros mountains, the ziggurat, the organ of home that constantly beats whether you left it five minutes or fifty years ago, have been replaced by shards of plaster, plastic soldiers, and fragile highrise buildings warning of the emptiness of towers. Here lies the critical honesty of Siti’s work. Siti’s locales live where people’s lives aren’t just destroyed by bombs or the fight against ISIS, but by the implosion of where one has always belonged, or thought they might. The intrusion of violent economics that upends ways of life, new developments that tear through memories, facades of modernism with no time for mercy. In the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, regional war and autonomy have come together with immeasurable positive outcomes, yes, but also grave and ever unfolding consequences.
As Kurdistan and dreams of independence have become more realized, more physical, so have Siti’s works. This turn to sculpture seems to mirror the physical, man-made buildings up in Kurdish cities such as Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Duhok, cities which experienced a spike in building as populations and business swelled due to political instability and violence in the rest of Iraq, namely Baghdad. His ruminations are no longer only abstractions of memory, of desire, of tangled up dreams and realities. Though applauded by a US desperate for “success stories” coming out of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan has not been exempt from corruption, rapidly unchecked development, militarization and political discord. And this appears to be the kindling for Siti’s newest works. In a place where the capital city Erbil, is a safe haven with battles raging within eyesight just across its (as always), man-made borders, fragility and reversals of fortune cannot be buried worries. Siti makes this fragility beautifully pointed in his use of twigs and disposable, plastic soldier figurines.
Here is where time with one’s subject matters. Where a cursory knowledge of events and/or people’s cannot make for sustained, meaningful work. Siti’s work resonates due to skill in tandem with a sensitivity that does not allow for superficial entry points. As viewers we are rewarded by his sense of time – one that does not fit into cyclical events but takes its cues from nature, where cycles last far longer than one’s lifetime, and understanding requires intimacy with the terrain. This intimacy flows through Siti’s works, bringing a cohesion of integrity along with a sustained, intriguing visual experience.