Reformation: A new art space from an old prison

11 Feb

Members of the Kurdish Mask and Puppet exchange at the Red Jail in Sulaymaniyah

After spending the morning at the Khanzad Culture and Social Centre, we headed to the Amna Suraka complex, otherwise known as the Red Jail. The Red Jail was used by the Ba´athists during Saddam’s reign as the region’s security headquarters. The compound today remains as it was after 1991 when the Kurdish Peshmerga army attacked and took over the prison in a two day battle. Since the uprising and the takeover of the Red Jail, its vacant structures have taken on a new role as sort of architectural testament to the past. Groups such as ArtRole have utilized the space for the recent Post-War festival of art and culture, and artists have set up temporary exhibitions and installations inside this symbol of oppression.

Bullet scarred facade in Amna Suraka, Red Jail complex

Main Building in the Amn Suraka, Red Jail complex

Post War Festival 2009, Iraqi-Kurdistan by ArtRole: A performance ‘Memory Game’ Adalet R. Garmiany, end of the opening day of the festival. Performers included Richard Wilson, Ann Bean, Miyaka Marita, Liaka Rafik (Adalet’s mother) and about 50 Kurdish students, musicians, ex-prisoners, local people and artists.

Kurdish soliders at the entrance to the complex debating whether we can enter.

Upon arriving at the entrance we were met by a cadre of soldiers who informed us that due to the Eid holiday the complex was closed, and proclaimed that not even the prime minister himself could enter. Thanks to skillful negotiation by Rebeen Majeed a short while later we were allowed to enter and wander around the grounds of the former prison.  The hulking modernist structures, are formed of deep red earthen concrete and yellow brick, punctuated by Sumarian inspired imposing geometric patterns protruding above each of the cells. The various facades are riddled with the pockmarks from the shells of the insurrection and seem to stand out like military medals pinned to a uniform, serving as a physical reminder of the violence that occurred in order to preserve the present tranquility. In a courtyard rests a number of tanks and armored personal carriers used by the military under Sadaam, these heavy machines parked in neat rows seem ready to roll out on the streets at moments notice. Their readiness however is belied by the creeping signs of rust, those wrinkles of age that reveal their real state of dormancy and ennui.


Military vehicles parked in the cortyard of the complex

Rehersal for a performance by the Kurdish Mask and Puppet Exchange

Members of the Kurdish Mask and Puppet Exchange exploring the grounds of the Amna Suraka, Red Jail


Behind the vehicles we ran into Nabil Musa and Zoilo Lobera who were beginning a rehearsal with students from the Institute of Fine Art in Sulaymaniyah as part of the Kurdish Mask and Puppet Exchange. Nabil and Zoilo have a theater and film-making background respectively and are based in Nottingham along with another member of their group Stephen Jon, a professional maskmaker. We talked with them about their project, which began as a desire to return to the north of Iraq and help to foster the burgeoning visual and dramatic art scene. The group eventually found funding from the British Arts Council to support the mask and puppet exchange that collaborates with young people, both male and female, in the region on the design and creation of masks and the development of public performances. They invited us to watch a rehearsal for film they are working on which will take place in a nearby underground cave. Their first performance took place a month ago in the largest park in Sulaymaniyah, where dozens of actors in costumes with handmade mask staged a carnivalesque procession. We watched Nabil and Zoilo help choreograph the new piece, engaging and coaching the young volunteers who enthusiastically participated, crafting their own parts and channeling decades of conflict into mock battles scenes.

Mask and puppet making workshop in Sulaymaniyah

Part of the first performance of the Kurdish Mask and Puppet Exchange in Sulaymaniyah

Traveling to the cave to shoot the new film

On the set of the film by the Kurdish Mask and Puppet Exchange


Artists in Sulaymaniyah Pt. II

18 Jan

Khanzad Culture and Social Centre, Sulaymaniyah

After breakfast Rebeen picked us up and we drove to meet a number of artists at the Khanzad Culture and Social Centre, a government-funded centre that focuses on empowering women with computer and professional skills to provide them with the option to enter the workforce. The centre provides meeting rooms, computers and also commissions studies and publishes reports on issues relating to women in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ceramic Vessels from a recent workshop at the centre


Nehro Schauki and Zana Rasool at breakfast

Exchanging ideas during the presentation

As we entered the courtyard there were a number of hand-made clay pots drying in the sun made during a recent workshop. Finishing breakfast were a number of artists including Nehro Schauki who has spent time in Germany. His work ranges from performance to installations and collaborates with many of the younger artists working in the north of Iraq. After a light snack and some wonderfully delicate soup we all moved indoors and as a means of exchange of information and activity we offered a brief introduction of ourselves and some of our past projects. The first to reciprocate was the artists and curator Azar Othman, who was one of the founders of the artist collective, Sulyon group, which is comprised of over a dozen collaborators who have worked together on a series of projects mainly relating to art and public space. One recent event entitled Border was a collectively organized workshop in which a series of performances and artworks unfolded at the border between Iraq and Iran. Focusing on the area surrounding a specific town which is split by the territorial divide the actions engaged with the imaginary division that has separated the landscape and families. Shene Jabar invited children residing on either side of the border to play together along an irrigation ditch that acts as the barrier dividing the villages land. Here from one point of view we see the unleashing of the play instinct as described by Friedrich Schiller as the deep human desire for aesthetic freedom, more than mere recreation, to play is to enact the aspiration of liberty. A suspension of time which allows different realities to be tested. It is in these simple gesture of singing and twirling hand in hand back and forth the line of seperation begins to dissipate.

Azar Othman speaking with Sulyon group during the Border project

Shene Jabar’s work along the Iraq/Iran border

Azar Othman, Bricks (2005)

Along with his activity as a curator Azar Othman’s focuses on sculpted environments and installation in his own artistic practice. Bricks (2005) engages with the materia prima of the reconstruction and building boom that is occurring in many areas of Iraq. Small cubic structures formed of tan bricks each emanating a warm light from their core are arranged into a grid pattern that is reminiscent of many of the new developments. Their abstracted form retain an utopian sensibility, one that accompanies the nature of planning. It can be in that process of projecting the future that entails the suspension of the present state in order to imagine an ideal structure and an ideal community. A process that Suylon group and Ottman are actively engaged in.

Zana Rasool, Memories and War (2009)

The artist Zana Rasool shared with us some of his work which primarily focuses on sculpture and installation. One of his pieces Memories and War (2009) presents the artists collection of books arranged in old ammunition crates, which were common as a household furnishing during the long period of the Kurdish struggle under the Ba’athist regime. While the crates themselves recall a history of conflict the transformative gesture of reproposing the containers as storehouses of knowledge, while keeping the past in plain sight can also be seen as an educational strategy moving forward. In a positive signal for the future Rasool mentioned that is was surprisingly difficult to find the ammunition boxes for the installation. The crates were at one point ubiquitous, however recently many households have traded in the relics of war for the more comfortable accoutrements of domesticity.

Bhrhm Taib H. Ameen, Kurdish Man (2009)

Bhrhm Taib H. Ameen, artist and photographer, also works with new configurations of the past. Enthralled with old photographic portraits from the region at the end of the nineteenth century many of which are badly damaged or fading, Ameen restages the images constructing lavish sets with resplendent décor, adorning the sitters with antique weapons and intricate costumes. This re-presentation of frames from the past demonstrate a deep desire for the emergence of a history that goes beyond a narrative dedicated by nations, but rather one that lives on in communities and understands the continuity of culture instead of political borders. Ameen also takes photographs of the many enigmatic landscapes and architectural relics in the north of Iraq.

The fascinating morning left us wanting to stay and chat with all that were present, however as it was our last day in Sulaymaniyah we had to leave our gracious hosts.

Artists in Sulaymaniyah

4 Dec

Rebeen Majeed, Research image for Dado: Transform Project 2010


After lunch with Julie we hailed a taxi to an opening at the Galawezh Festival. The taxi driver, Ossman, spoke fluent Dutch, English, Arabic and Kurdish having lived in the Netherlands for two years and he just secured a fifteen year work permit to return to Holland as an electrical engineer. Working during the day with a local company, he was driving a taxi in the evening saving money for his imminent departure. One of the many stories we’ve heard of multi-tasking in the expanding labour market since 2003, as it seems most people have two, three or four jobs now to keep up with the rising costs of living.

We arrived at Tawar Hall which had the appearance of a large hotel with a conference center adjacent, and is one of the main exhibition spaces in the city. The space which has a gallery and auditorium was holding a show to coincide with the last day of the annual Galawezh Festival which highlights art and literature in the  region. The group exhibition primarily focused on abstract painting and included a number of artists from Sulaymaniyah. We visited the show with the artists Rebeen Majeed and Rozhgar Mahmood and afterward went to their house for dinner and Korean beer.


Site of Dado: Transform Project, old government building in the state of restoration

Rebeen Majeed, Research image for Dado: Transform Project 2010


Rebeen Majeed is an artist and curator who recently organized the exhibition Dado: Transform Project set in a disused 18th century government building that was in the process of undergoing renovation. The show centered on the idea of the ability of objects to be re-interpeted, re-defined and re-used in a multiplicity of ways. The transformation asserts a new context and destination for objects, while drawing into questioning assumtions about the ordering of everyday life. Moreover it is the pervasive potential for change and a sense of freedom that can be seen as challenge to the homogonizing forces of modernity.

Rebeen Majeed, Untitled (2004)


The art practice of Rebeen takes many forms, in an early photographic work he compiles a number of images of himself in profile. His shaved head excentuates the flatness at the back of his skull which is a common trait in the area due to the Kurdish custom of wrapping young babies tightly in their cots. In the work, Rebeen imagines through drawn variations, what the back of his head might have looked like were it not for this tradition.

Rozhgar Mahmood, A pot of water (2009)


Rozhgar Mahmood’s work also ranges from intimate performances to social interventions. A pot of water (2009) is a thirty minute video that documents the tedious performance of emptying a large container of water with a teaspoon. This durational action undertaken at a residency at the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdansk, Poland highlights a sense of apprehension through the repetitive nature of domestic life. The solemn state of anticipation evident in the work is also found more broadly in others from her generation. As Rozhgar remarked, “there is a sense of waiting, waiting for something, but not yet knowing what that something is.”

Rozhgar Mahmood and Avan Aumar

Rozhgar Mahmood and Avan Aumar

Rozhgar Mahmood and Avan Aumar


Collaborating with the artist Avan Aumar on another piece. Rozghar and Avan worked with women in an area of Sulaymaniyah encouraging a transition out of the usual everyday sphere of the home into public space. The artists set up a living room in an abandonded lot with furniture donated from various nearby houses and then held meetings and workshops with women from the local area. This semblance of a familiar environment was effective in providing a visible transitional space which was maintained by the women for the duration of the piece.

Shirwan Fatih, Rubber (2009)

Shirwan Fatih, Rubber (2009)


The artist Shirwan Fatih also dropped by and we watched the documentation of his new work Rubber (2009). Shirwan collected old erasers from children in six classes of elementary school in exchange for new ones. The rubbers were then arranged in large rectangles by class and installed sequentially on a gallery floor from the first to the six year. What becomes apparent in the installation is the decreasing number of rubbers in each rectangle as the years progress. Shirwan attributes this change to our lack of willingness to admit mistakes as we grow older. The objects of the erasers offer a tangible history of these mistakes, the evidence which remains of our errors. In a way, the project cleans the slate, refreshing the tools of education.

The artist Shirwan Fatih also dropped by and we watched the documentation of his
new work Rubber (2009). Shirwan collected old erasers from children in six classes of
elementary school in exchange for new ones. The rubbers were then arranged in large
rectangles by class and installed sequentially on a gallery floor from the first to the six
year. What becomes apparent in the installation is the decreasing number of rubbers
in each rectangle as the years progress. Shirwan attributes this change to our lack of
willingness to admit mistakes as we grow older. The objects of the erasers offer a tangible history of these mistakes, the evidence which remains of our errors. In a way, the
project cleans the slate, refreshing the tools of education.

Women in Iraq

24 Nov

“This woman was imprisoned for having sex outside of marriage and she gave birth to her child in prison. She was arrested on 21 July 2009 has not yet received a sentence, she is from the Soran district near Erbil.”

From Born in Jail (2009) by Julie Adnan


After walking around the bustling market busy with families buying new clothes and food for the festival of Eid, we met with the artist Julie Adnan in a serene restaurant on the top of a new shopping centre that overlooks the rapidly expanding city of Sulaymaniyah. We discussed her series of photographs Born in Jail (2009) which was on view at the Cornerhouse space in Manchester. The portraits depict women in the Iraqi prison system, with scarves covering their faces to mask their identity and holding their children that were born in confinement. Some of the inmates were convicted of prostitution or theft while others committed offenses to more traditional laws such as adultery. However the jail can also be seen as a safe haven. Other women in the institution have come voluntarily, seeking shelter from their families as honour killings for acts that transgress the honour of the family are still common in parts of the country. The images make visible these clandestine women while highlighting their status in Iraqi society.

“This child was born in prison, he is 8 months old. The mother was imprisoned on 29 January 2009 and sentenced to one year in jail for having “illegal sex” with a man. She is from Erbil.”

From Born in Jail (2009) by Julie Adnan

The artist, Julie Adnan

A more recent project, Chairs (2010), can be seen as a type of contemporary archive, chronicling images of chairs in the region. This seemingly everyday piece of furniture has tremendous political symbolism in an area that has long been defined by strict top down hierarchical structures of power. In this context any chair can be seen as a seat of power and these different permutations are explored in the series; from the Prime Minister’s ornamental armchair; to an office chair used by a prison guard; an apparently abandoned chair in a vacant lot; and even the seat of the President of Iran.

From Chairs (2010), Julie Adnan

From Born in Jail (2009) by Julie Adnan

We also spoke about the state of art education in Iraq as Julie is presently finishing her final year at the College of Fine Art part of Sulaymaniyah University. The college, which has about equal enrollment of both men and women, is divided by discipline such as painting, sculpture, and dance. The visual arts students work on developing three areas of art, classical, realism and modern art which culminate in a final project following the style of each period. Different classes in Art History are taught; the basic introduction which covers pre-history to baroque, Islamic art history, and modern art. The modern art history class begins in the middle of 19th century and ends at cubism, students mainly learn about contemporary art by themselves from the internet and what sources are available in the library. While instructors at the college will give one-on-one critiques a few times a year, the students mainly learn from one another which instills a strong sense of community amongst the artists.

University of Sulaymaniyah which houses the College of Fine Arts

Drive to Sulaymaniyah

20 Nov

Drive to Sulaymaniyah

After a few busy days in Erbil we drove south to the city of Sulaymaniyah, considered to be the cultural capital of the region. There are two routes to Sulaymaniyah, the most common is the more direct route through oil-rich Kirkuk, which is outside of Iraqi Kurdistan’s border and a contested city between the Kurds and the Arabs. We opted for the scenic way through the mountains, which remains inside in the boundaries of the autonomous north.

We undertook the trip with our friend and driver Himan, along with the artist Jamal Penjweny who was returning home for a brief visit. Jamal, part of the younger generation of Iraqi artists, works primarily with photography and film. Iraq is Flying, one of his recent projects addresses the uncertainty of life in an area of conflict, depicting individuals in Iraq suspended mid-jump.

Image from the series Iraq is Flying by Jamal Penjweny

Another project of Jamal’s, Saddam is Here, depicts a cross-section of people from Iraqi society each holding up a picture of Saddam Hussein which covers their face. The gesture alludes to the lingering effect of the previous regime on individuals and Iraqi society as a whole.

Image from the series Sadaam is Here by Jamal Penjweny

Jamal is currently working on two projects; one addresses the frequent honour killings of women by their families that still occur in the north of Iraq; the other follows an arms smuggler who runs guns from the south of the country up to the Kurdish area. Evidently handguns can easily be obtained for $100 while US Army assault weapons will set you back over $2,000, however guns are more rare in the north than the south. Neither Jamal nor Himan or anyone in their family owned a firearm.


We passed through a number of checkpoints manned by Kurdish soldiers and occasionally fierce-looking dogs. They seemed more concerned about passports and ID cards than what we might have been carrying. Jamal explained that immigration is a problem as there are a large number of Iranians and Iraqis from other parts of the country who are trying to come and work in the north of Iraq.

The open road

Midway through our journey we were in need of petrol. The different grades of gasoline, Super unleaded 89% or Premium 92%, in Iraq are known colloquially by their regional origin, for example Basra or Iran. We stopped at a number of stations in search of “Baiji” named after a town between Mosul and Baghdad that has the cleanest petrol in the country. We finally found Baiji at a station perched next to the road which consisted of a shipping container, a pump and an elevated tank. Underneath the tank was a pigeon coup which the attendant happily obliged our curiosity and led us into the cage to show off his different types of birds.

Pigeon coup under the tank at the petrol station

Himan, Jamal, Jason and the attendant admiring the pets

We passed through one village which was historically known for its Catholic inhabitants and still has a church and many Christians residing there today.

Catholic town

Driving in through the country side, the slow rolling hills rose over the arid plains which eventually gave way to more jagged peaks. The rugged mountains near Sulaymaniyah was home for many of the local Kurdish fighters called Peshmerga as they fought Sadaam and Iran for the right of self-determination. Nowadays many of the fighters have laid down their arms and are part of the Regional Government of Kurdistan, both the head of the region Massoud Barzani and the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani are both veterans of the struggle.

Mountains near Sulaymaniyah

Finally we descended on Sulaymaniyah, a new five-star hotel in the shape of the “sail building” in Dubai was under construction and punctuated the sprawling city that seemed to blanket the slopes in an endless array of buildings.

Sulaymaniyah and the new five-star hotel

The Citadel Situation

17 Nov

The Ancient Citadel in the center of Erbil

On another cloudless, warm day in Erbil we climbed to the top of the ancient Citadel that rises above the city centre with Chro, a student at the Foreign Language University. The man-made mound on which the present settlement rests was built up slowly over its 6,000 year history with each generation using the previous structures as foundations to build upward to the present height of 30 meters (100 feet). At the main gate to the city we came across a group of westerners having their picture taken with their security team in front of the towering sculpture of a famous Kurdish historian. Beth struck up a conversation with the American woman in the group who was in the country as part of a UN mission. She had just come from Baghdad and talked about her stay in the Green Zone where she was required to have full body armour on hand at all times and the incoming mortar alarm would sound at least 3 times a day. (Needless to say no mortar alarms needed in this part of the country)

Beth speaking with a UN representative

Entering the town, we were struck by its sheer size and evidence of modern life with wide roads, street lights and a mobile phone tower. The layers of history are evident in certain details of the idiosyncratic, labyrinthine architecture. The evidence of many decades can be found in the accumulated construction of a single section of a building. The thresholds of the houses that were worn down and the reinforcement of the roofs with an assortment of materials; straw mats, logs, old furniture, corrugated metal and old street signs.

Old house in the Citadel

One of the major historical claims of the Citadel is that it is the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in history. However the settlement, under consideration for nomination as World Heritage Site, was recently vacated by the government on the grounds that the buildings needed to undergo restoration because the inhabitants were not taking proper care of the site. There was concern inadequate drainage was disintegrating the hill of the Citadel. In the 80s and early 90s many of the families that had traditionally lived in the houses moved down to the city below and refugees from the turmoil of that period started to settle in the empty structures without permits. In 2006, the city drafted a master plan which would resettle the 800 families, over 2,000 people, to vacant land outside of the city and tear down the buildings surrounding the Citadel to provide a “buffer zone” which is a requirement for UNESCO world heritage sites. Some of the families took the government’s offer and others protested until basic services were cut and were forcibly removed. Currently the buildings are awaiting renovation and slowly falling apart as there is no one living in the structures to maintain them. The Master Plan details a restoration of a number of the buildings and there is currently a proposal under review which would allow a limited number of people to inhabit the Citadel, these new residents would likely be chosen through a selection process transforming the area into a “living museum”.


We went into a few of the ancient homes however access is restricted to the main road that bisects the town. Inside the homes, which were surprisingly cool, traces of old frescos could be seen and a few of the decorative carvings remained.

Carved column

Chro and Jason in front of a building with remains of frescoes

Near the entrance is a gift shop with a bizarre mixture of antiques, old telephones, pots, rugs and generic souvenirs including images of Raphael’s cherubs, and commemorative plates with painted portraits of Kurdish politicians, although no postcards.

Commemorative plates inside the gift shop

Mannequins in the gift shop

The Citadel is evidently still a popular place for local residents who come up to enjoy the fresh air and panoramic views of the city.

Flag of Kurdish Iraq in the center of the Citadel

Chro, Himan and Beth overlooking Erbil

The Shopping Mall Experience

15 Nov

Arriving at the Majidi Shopping Mall

We drove to the new Majidi Shopping Mall part of the recent urban sprawl of Erbil. The gleaming new structure houses a 6-D Cinema, yes 6-D, Mango, Levi’s and Nike are sold alongside lots of little known fashion labels. In one part of the mall a lingere shop sat opposite a boutique that sold tradional islamic dress for women. Definatly not a place for shoplifters as mall security all sported new AK-47s. Upon arrival.we had to walk through a metal detector and all men are frisked.

The center atrium displayed an exhibition organized by the US Embassy that was uncharacteristically reflexive for an official exhibition. The show was composed of various historical photographs documenting tours of musicians to sites of conflict and/or ideological foes of the US. The information placards described how musicians apparently helped to ease relationships with the various countries: Louis Armstrong’s 1960 visit to Congo and later to Egpyt; as well as Dizzie Gillespie trip to Poland and the former USSR in the 70s. Looking at the exhibition, we were overcome by the strange impression that the photographs, documenting the cultural ambassadors of goodwill, were acting upon us at that very moment. There seemed to be no irony in the fact that the work selected was meant to impart a similar political agenda as the photos. In this case to ease an occupation.

Upstairs in the food court, near a Chester’s Chicken and a sign announcing the arrival of a Burger King, we saw the first two uniformed US soliders of our trip. Two men with crew cuts dressed in desert fatigues with large boots sat at a table in a meeting with a Kurdish woman.

The mega-mall

The American Embassy Photography Exhibition