ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Sherko Abbas as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Sherko Abbas is a Kurdish-Iraqi artist. He was born in Iran in 1978, where his family lived as refugees, and returned to Iraq when he was two years old. He studied Fine Art in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq and graduated with a Master in Fine Arts from Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2015. He works within various media including video, performance, text, sculpture and sound. His practice is dedicated to collective memory, sonic and visual memory, as well as the geopolitical situation of contemporary Iraq. Through his work, he observes how war has been absorbed into local culture in Iraq through music, film, cartoons and children’s toys.
Abbas’ works have been exhibited and screened internationally including at: Archaic, the Iraq pavilion at the 57th Venice biennale; Theater of Operation, MoMA PS1, New York; May Flames Pave the Way for You, Arsenal gallery, Białystok; Towner International, Towner Eastbourne, Eastbourne; Speaking Across Mountains, Middle East Institute, Washington D.C.; Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin, Louvre Auditorium, Paris; Baghdad Mon Amour, Institut des Cultures d’Islam, Paris; Vernacularity, Alternativa Festival, Gdansk; Estrangement, The Showroom, London.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Sherko Abbas: I always describe my practice as something that does not start with what I am interested in, rather it starts with what I have gotten bored of.
As an artist, I use audio-visual archives, moving images, sound and performance. My practice is dedicated to visual and sonic memory. My work explores so-called “modern memory,” which relies on archival material with a focus on conflict, soft power, cultural imperialism as well as the geopolitical situation of Iraq.
AE: You moved to the UK from Iraq to pursue your MFA at Goldsmiths. In your experience, how does the art scene of these two countries differ? Why did you decide to remain in the UK after completing your MFA in 2015?
SA: There are massive differences between Iraq and the UK in terms of the role of art and its relationship to society. But before I start to point out the differences, I would like to mention that in my country there are many great artists who are seriously engaging with their practice and creating art. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t hear much about them, and even if they do, it is minimal. On the one hand, in Iraq we don’t have many organizations that can introduce us to the world of art (there are only a few, which is not nearly enough for a country with so many problems), and on the other hand, there is a lack of understanding about the role and potential of art in society by our government. The art education in Iraq also still teaches Orthodox art.
For these reasons, artists need to do everything themselves when they want to show their work. For instance, they have to think about how to get funds, rent an exhibition space, create a catalog and an event on social media; really every aspect of the exhibition making process. Therefore, when I am explaining the differences between the UK and my country, we can see that the art scene has been highly developed in Britain, and they have very important organizations and funders that have a great impact on the art scene and the society in the UK Although I am aware of many obstacles that artists also have in the UK compared to my country, the UK has many opportunities for artists to develop their practice and provides a chance for them to be bold with their work.
There are a few reasons why I decided to stay in Britain even though I still consider it as a temporary home, while I continue to travel back and forth to Iraq. The main reason for staying is that many of my father’s archives have been used by others on various TV channels, such as the BBC, without giving him any credit. This is a great source of anger for me, and I am working towards sorting this out. Simultaneously, as an artist I had a lot of travel limitations: if you could see my passport you would be surprised to see how many visa rejection stamps there are! I can say that I have visa rejection stamps from most every European country, which I had intended to travel to for artistic reasons. I see this as a big problem because I believe that freedom of travel is essential for artists to connect and understand how the art world runs and how this can open many doors of opportunity. It is likely well known to most that nowadays, many artists who hold passports from countries that have political issues and that are from the global south are facing issues obtaining visas. In 2009, I was invited by the Delfina Foundation to take part in its residency program but unfortunately, I wasn’t granted a visa and I had to give up this opportunity.
AE: You are deeply invested in the geopolitics of Iraq and the region at large. How do you incorporate perspectives on the geopolitical climate within your practice as a whole?
SA: I put a lot of my focus on Iraq’s geopolitics. I want to see how these geopolitical connections affect the population of this area, from social communications to cultural activities, and how vernaculars have changed under the impact of this relationship. At the moment, I am currently working on a proposal about Iraq’s water resources commissioned by the Ruya Foundation. The project is called World Weather Network which includes 30 international organizations to form a new world coalition regarding the changes in weather by including research from artists, authors, activists, and scientists. In the end, the research will be presented in the form of an exhibition at Art Angel in London.
AE: Can you tell us about the importance of archiving in your art practice? What kinds of archives do you seek to include in your videos?
SA: I am obsessed with the past and excavating the unknown past; memory is my medium. As an artist, I have always tried to understand the relationship between archive and memory, until I came across Pierre Nora, a French historian, who coined the term “modern memory.” He sensitively indicates the relationship between archive and memory and he states, “memory is not what we understood in the past that can be seen as an inner activity of human, but memory is an external practice that relies on recording and above all archiving.” I produce my works under the influence of this view. But also I want to mention my father, who is an archivist and filmmaker, and who spent most of his life during the 80s amassing and documenting the Kurdish struggle movement in the North of Iraq. His archive is estimated to be more than 100 hours and consists of different subjects other than war footage, such as village life, agriculture, social events, documenting people singing and much more. His legacy has had a great impact on my practice too, so much so that I have used part of his archive in my work.
Memory and archives are not just important windows to remind us of the past, but also it is important to imagine a past that unfolds in the future. Moreover, I wanted to mention that archival materials are hardly used by artists in Iraq. Generally, archives are used to create propaganda or at political events by the party in power, and in these cases, often at the expense of marginalizing and overlooking the actual victims within these materials. Maybe this is the nature of the archive, similarly to the way Derrida sees it, as a place of violence. The archive as a reflection of and the source of state power, is extremely selective when deciding what gets in. Only those voices that conform to the ideals of those in power are allowed into the archive, those that do not conform are silenced. Those marginalized by the state are marginalized by the archive. So I believe that the artist’s role is very important here, to find whose voice is silenced or marginalized and why. It’s very important for artists who live in Iraq to pay attention to archives as the country goes through one of the most violent eras in its history. The perspective of artists can help commemorate victims, those who have been forgotten and events that are forbidden to talk about; as Jean Baudrillard says, “forgotten is a type of extermination.”
AE: What role does sound and music play within your research and art practice?
SA: Using sound and music in my practice is linked to my understanding of images. In my opinion, non-Western people lost the battle of images a long time ago. What I mean is that we are hardly able to express our feelings or explain our wounds through images. The West, through its media platforms such as TV and cinema, produce an uncountable amount of fake images in comparison to the rest of the globe and particularly vis-à-vis developing countries. The West creates fake images about our lives, our beliefs, our politics, our nature and of course, about our past, present and future as well.
Images are actually used as a weapon against the Iraqi people. The most obvious example to me is what was used by the Pentagon during the occupation of Iraq in 2003 called Shock and Awe. Simply put, the bombardment of Iraq was filmed and photographed and aired live on TV to push Iraqi soldiers to give up the battle. This caused the loss of electricity and cutting out of drinking water, not to mention above all the immense loss of Iraqi civilian lives. My point is that sound is the only medium that is not controlled and occupied completely by this image-making demon. Because of this, sound is an important medium to use so that we can establish certain facts about our lives and problems which as it stands now, are not possible to achieve with images. This is how I understand the role of sound and music in my practice.
Sharwal, 2009, Single-Channel Color Digital video, 3 minutes 50 seconds
AE: In addition to pursuing your art practice, you have also organized curatorial projects since 2005. In what ways do your art and curatorial projects intersect or differ? Why do you strictly develop curatorial projects in Iraq, and not elsewhere?
SA: The history of contemporary art in Iraqi Kurdistan is new, three decades have not yet gone by. We were a group of young artists whose works were recognised as “contemporary.” It was not easy to establish or practice a new form of art in a country that had been so isolated from the global art world. We had very little connection with artists outside Iraq, and were not very much familiar with the internet because it was relatively new and it was not affordable for everyone. So we have no way of keeping up to date with the art movements that were developing at the time; it was truly practicing art in the present. Starting in 2005, there were various Kurdish artists who had been living in Europe, who organized some art projects and workshops by inviting academics and artists to Sulaymaniyah. Around that time, I decided to organize a show called The 2005 Project, in which I invited young Kurdish artists from the local area to respond to these artistic activities that were taking place at the time. My work as a curator was driven by the lack of curators and curatorial initiatives to showcase how we, as young artists, think and work.
Since then, I have curated several projects, but my latest one was a show titled Clamor, which featured 8 contemporary artists mostly from Sulaymaniyah. The focus of this show was on sound as a medium in response to the everyday political dilemmas that people in Iraq face, as well as the government’s attempts to tackle these problems through ineffective solutions.
I haven’t curated outside of Iraq, since it is easier for me to work abroad as an artist rather than a curator. I wanted to develop my artistic practice abroad and feel that my curatorial work is more impactful in Iraq.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
SA: I would say my main influences have been Abbas Kiarostami and Harun Farocki, although both have created different kinds of works. Kiarostami and Farocki both are the world’s most critically acclaimed directors and I am influenced by their insight into images. I admire Kiarostami for working between fiction and reality and also Farocki, for his deep understanding of war and technology.
AE: Do you have any shows, performances or projects coming up in 2022-2023?
SA: As I mentioned, I am now working on the proposal for the Ruya Foundation about water in Iraq and its connection to global warming. This March, I will also be screening one of my films from another project in Baghdad, organized by Habibi Collective. At the end of 2022, I will take part in the exhibition in London, titled Power only Recognises the Power, which is a group show of Kurdish and African artists curated by Kisito Assangini and Engin Sustam. I am now preparing for my new film project which is about Iraq from the Gulf War to the present and into the future. For this project, I plan to use imagery from Hollywood films about Iraq with a mixture of footage from video games. My aim in this film is to ask a question: “Can we understand films and gaming as a fact about our future?”
SHERKO ABBAS ONLINE: