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THE VIDEO WORKS OF SHERKO ABBAS: Legacies of Personal Archives Made Collective

THE VIDEO WORKS OF SHERKO ABBAS: Legacies of Personal Archives Made Collective

Online screening:
June 20 – 30
Available worldwide
FREE / $5 suggested donation

In-person Screening:
Friday, June 21

Selections from the Video Works of Sherko Abbas
Post Screening Q&A with Xeyal Qertel, Director of the NY Kurdish Film Festival

Maysles Documentary Center
Address: 343 Malcolm X Blvd, New York
Ticket Price: $15 /$7 reduced
Link to Tickets Here 

For Sherko Abbas, archives represent more than the impetus behind his works, they reflect a deeply personal history. He is the son of Abbas Abdulrazaq, a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter and cameraman who documented his fighting squads and co-founded the first Kurdish state news broadcast following the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein in 1991. Abbas grew up surrounded by his father’s archives, raised on the importance of collection as a form of preservation and knowing. Among the threads within his work is an interest in the cultural, historic and political significance of musical traditions within Iraq. While he has maintained a visual arts practice for decades, in recent years he has produced a significant number of video works that either emerge from his family’s archives or as a result of his own documentations of contemporary Kurdistan and Iraq. 

THE VIDEO WORKS OF SHERKO ABBAS: Legacies of Personal Archives Made Collective presents nine videos made between 2019 – 2022. His films address a range of issues pertaining to social and political history, often focusing on specific memories or events to question larger narratives put forth by those in power. Abbas’ style is often raw, preferring a less polished edit of footage that asks viewers to deeply contemplate the images, sounds and people they are witnessing. Silence Along the River makes use of rare footage from his father’s Peshmerga archives depicting soldiers rowing a boat and collectively singing a song–footage meant to have recorded a battle that did not occur and thus, was not worthy of being used in 1988. Paper Puppet Testimony and The Tank of my Sketchbook revolve around Abbas’ childhood memories, unpacking the erasure of a cabin used to torture Kurdish women in a Saddam-era prison turned museum, and the effects of state propaganda on children during the Iran-Iraq war, respectively. In his most recent three-part film, Encounters on the Tigris, Abbas embarks on a journey along the river documenting the effects of ecological collapse and recording the oral and folk music traditions of communities that have lived there for centuries. This revelatory journey and the volume of documentation collected that did not make these films’ final cuts can perhaps be viewed as the beginning of the artist’s own ever expanding archival legacy. Whether accessing his family archives, public records, or his own recorded materials, Abbas’ work complicates official historical narratives and presents poetic multifaceted perspectives of Kurdish Iraqi society.  

THE VIDEO WORKS OF SHERKO ABBAS: Legacies of Personal Archives Made Collective is curated by Lila Nazemian, Programs and Communications Director at ArteEast, and is co-presented by ArteEast and Maysles Documentary Center. This program is part of the legacy program Unpacking the ArteArchive, which preserves and presents 20 years of film and video programming by ArteEast. Selections from the program will be screened in-person at Maysles Documentary Center on Friday, June 21 followed by a discussion between Xeyal Qertel, Director of the NY Kurdish Film Festival and the curator. For information about the screening on June 21, visit The full program will be screened online on from June 20 – 30.

Film Program:
Total Run time: 104 min

Encounters on the Tigris, Part 1, Sherko Abbas, Iraq, 2022, 12 min.
Encounters on the Tigris, Part 2, Sherko Abbas, Iraq, 2022, 19 min.
Encounters on the Tigris, Part 3, Sherko Abbas, Iraq, 2022, 10 min.
Arabic and Kurdish with English subtitles

Encounters on the Tigris follows a journey taken by artist and filmmaker Sherko Abbas in 2022, along the ancient Tigris river, in search of previously undocumented oral traditions and the ecological knowledge they hold. His journey begins in the Kurdish Zakho district of northern Iraq and ends in Al Faw, where the river meets the Persian Gulf in the south.
Featuring interviews with folklorists, Quranic scholars, musicians and local communities, Abbas captures songs and stories about water that have been transmitted orally from one generation to the next for centuries. At a time when climate change is beginning to have devastating impacts across the region, the film highlights the precarity of communities who depend on the river and the environmental instability resulting from Iraq’s recent history, revealing ancient cultural traditions increasingly at odds with new ecological realities.

, Sherko Abbas and Shirwan Fatihm, Iraq, 2021, 25 min.
Arabic and Kurdish with English subtitles

Cineholic follows a group of friends from Kirkuk and their love affairs with film since they were young. The story traverses their memories related to this passion, while also alluding to the difficulties of living in Iraq at the ongoing backdrop of dictatorship, war, instability and insecurity.
The film also traces the catastrophes of neoliberalism, imported by USA to Iraq under the guise of progress. There was a collective cinema auditorium in the 1980s, which has turned into a garage for imported cars–a sign of neoliberalism and a free-market economy.

The Music of the Bush Era
, Sherko Abbas, Iraq, 2021, 23 min.
Arabic, Kurdish and English with English subtitles

The film explores the role of music in the Iraq War, particularly the U.S. government’s use of music as a tool of propaganda. Using a variety of news footage, as well as archival footage shot by Abass’ sister, a cellist in the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, the film demonstrates how in 2003, the US administration, engaged in a gesture of propagandist spectacle. Instead of supporting the orchestra in reestablishing itself after the war, the U.S. saw it more beneficial to militarily airlift the musicians to Washington so they could perform one evening at the Kennedy Centre before President Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and other top ranking politicians. Other segments focus on the Dixie Chicks who used their own music and influence to protest and criticize the Bush administration. 

The Tank of my Sketchbook
, Sherko Abbas, Iraq, 2021, 7 min.
Arabic and Kurdish with English subtitles

The Iran-Iraq war is often described as the 20th century’s longest war and its political ramifications arguably exist in Iraq to this day. Yet, its story is often overlooked.
In this animated film project, Sherko Abbas draws on his own childhood memories of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, as well as using found images and animated footage originally broadcasted on national Iraqi TV programs during the war.
For Iraqis, the Iran-Iraq war was the start of consecutive catastrophes, bringing on an onslaught of wars that has prevented the people of Iraq from processing its inevitable traumas. With this work, Abbas seeks to bring the ignored history of the Iran-Iraq war back on a table and to give it a closer look from the perspective of a child.
After a visit to London’s Imperial War Museum in 2018, Abbas was struck by the display of a Soviet-made T55 tank, which had also been captured in Iraq during the 2003 US invasion. The tank became the catalyst for him to revisit his memories of the Iran-Iraq war, which dominated his childhood. In this work, he revisits the sirens that blared at school and Iraqi state television broadcast propaganda cartoons that glorified Saddam’s war efforts.

Paper Puppet Testimony
, Sherko Abbas, Iraq, 2019, 8 min.
Arabic and Kurdish with English subtitles

The Kurdish uprising of 1991 against Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship is a pivotal event commemorated by all Kurdish peoples. This day marked the defeat of the Ba’athist regime in Kurdistan’s cities and each year, Kurdish channels run footage of the moment that people broke into Sulaymaniyah’s notorious prison Amna Suraka, The Red Prison (or Security Prison). It was a dreadful building in the middle of the city that stood out as a symbol of terror and oppression where for many years, hundreds of Kurdish men and women were tortured and killed by the regime.
Abbas has a vague memory of this day in front of the Red Prison. He was ten years old and he remembers seeing a caravan full of colorful women’s clothes, contraceptive pills, and other objects. The event left its mark on him, and years later he decided to probe further into this story. The caravan was only seen in the courtyard of the prison for a few days during the uprising until it disappeared without a trace. Since 2008, Sherko has been searching for its remains so as to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Abbas’s experimental documentary, Paper Puppet Testimony, collects the stories of Kurdish women in the Red Prison. Although the prison has been turned into a museum, the histories commemorated there are biased and focus primarily on stories of prisoners belonging to political parties in power. There is no mention of the captivity and torture endured by women prisoners. The political establishment has been unwilling to address and confront the atrocities committed against them. In his video, Abbas resists the erasure of these women’s experiences and reckons with the horrors of the past. 

Silence Along the River
, Sherko Abbas, Iraq, 2021, 7 min.
Kurdish with English subtitles

In 1985 a group of Kurdish fighters, known as a “Peshmerga,” embarked on a mission to attack one of the Iraqi army’s camps in the north of the country. They traveled on the Sirwan river by small raft to cross the area controlled by the Iraqi army.
This footage is part of an old archive taken by Sherko Abbas’ father, Abbas Abdulrazaq, a former Kurdish Peshmerga fighter and cameraman. He accompanied this group of Peshmerga to document their activities during the mission. Despite all the risks they took, the battle never took place and so, the fighters were filmed as they sang songs and waited.

, Sherko Abbas, Iraq, 2021, 4 min.

Sharwal is the name given to the traditional trousers that are worn by men in Kurdistan. Meticulously pleated and made from tightly woven wool, Sharwals can be filled with air and used to assist in flotation over bodies of water. The air bubble created when it is submerged into water has both a form and a function that helps crossing deep and broad waters. It further represents the connection between an informal local knowledge passed down within the larger community and the practicality of the garment being used to facilitate movement across terrains and even, to survive. 

Artist Biography:

Kurdish-Iraqi artist Sherko Abbas was born in Iran in 1978, where his family lived as refugees. They returned to Iraq when he was two years old. Abbas studied Fine Art in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq and went on to earn an MFA from Goldsmiths College, London in 2015. His work explores sonic and visual memory, with a focus on modern memory that relies on archival materials. Abbas is interested in the current geopolitical situation in Iraq.
His works have been exhibited internationally including at: the Iraq pavilion at the 57th Venice biennale; MoMA PS1, New York; the Kunsthalle Münster, Germany; Middle East Institute, Washington D.C.; and the Institut des Cultures dIslam, Paris, among others. His moving image works have been screened at the 38th Kassel Documentary Film and Video  Festival in Kassel, Aashra, Ashkal Alwan Online Film, Rencontres Internationales Paris/ Berlin at the Louvre Auditorium in Paris, the Open City Documentary Combined Programme: What  Rules The Invisible in London, Visit Festival Het Bos Ankerrui 5-7 in Antwerp, Belgium, Ruya Shop in Baghdad, and Shasha Movies online streaming.