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30.08.09

Understanding art and culture in Iraq-Kurdistan

Andrew Mitchelson of the Live Art Development Agency reports back on his research trip - part funded by VA - to Iraq Kurdistan earlier this year and the contemporary art scene that is thriving there against all the odds.

In March and April Andrew travelled to Iraq-Kurdistan on behalf of the Live Art Development Agency with Helen Pheby from Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Adalet Garmianay from Artrole. The trip was financially assisted by Artrole, the Live Art Development Agency and Visiting Arts. The visit was based predominantly in Erbil but took in the city of Sulaymanya. Following the Agency's long-term partnership with Artrole, the visit to the region was an important opportunity to meet artists, further develop contacts with the arts infrastructure in the region and support and assist in meetings towards future Artrole activity - most significantly, the Post-War event scheduled for November 2009.

There is a striking difference between the media and news coverage received in the UK, with its 'imagined' reality, and the ‘lived’ experience of culture and daily life. Despite the area's turbulent recent history under the Saddam regime (and with the security situation improving on a daily basis) it seems there is a bright and optimistic future, and a real sense of looking forwards.

The Red Security Building

A site visit to Saddam's Red Security Building in Sulymanya was one of the most provocative and thoughtful moments of the trip. The vast complex of cell buildings, once used by the Ba'ath regime to incarcerate and torture the Kurds has now been turned into a museum and gallery to preserve and display Kurdish history and to offer an overview of Kurdish culture.

The museum is also a point of reference for the genocide the Kurds had suffered. The Red Security Building offers a poignant reminder to the local and national population of those times.

Talks programme and the arts infrastructure in the region

In both cities it was possible to give lectures and show documentation about Live Art and Performance practices from the UK - offering an introduction to a broad range of work from artists in the UK. In Erbil an illustrated lecture was given to around fifty students at the Fine Art Institute, and in Sulaymanya around forty artists attended a talk at the Aram Gallery. There were lively discussions following both talks about the impact of contemporary art from the West within Iraq-Kurdistan, and it became apparent that the local artists, thinkers, academics and curators were excited by the work of Artrole in building opportunities for Iraq-Kurdistan to explore contemporary Western culture. Whilst resources are thinly spread, and many artists are not funded, the lack of formal infrastructure in some ways seems to feed the energies of artists and their practices.

What also became apparent through the visit, was a thriving artistic community in the two cities of Erbil and Sulaymaya, for both established artists working in traditional forms of, for example, painting and sculpture, and also a new generation of artists working across contemporary art and 'new forms' of culture. For the Live Art Development Agency and my specific engagement in the Artrole project, it was particularly exciting to see dynamic artist-led initiatives where artists were experimenting with 'new' modes of expression including land art, intervention and activist-based practices, performance and installation.

Self-organised groups are often making risky and highly politicized work responding to urgent cultural and social questions.This raised questions and concerns about how Artrole, and the Agency can play a role in ensuring that art practices can continue to be supported and nurtured. It is important to support risk-taking work, but within such practices it's also important to ask questions around how the risk can be considered and contained. For example, how can a female artist make political interventions without reaching the point where it is a dangerous for her to do so and alienating the community she must live within? How can a group of artists make work at the physical border between Iraq and Iran without risking arrest?

The research visit was integral to deepening and strengthening the Live Art Agency's understanding of contemporary arts and culture within Iraq-Kurdistan. Meeting artists face-to-face and hearing first-hand how and why artists make the work they make was part of the powerful impact of the visit. The Agency is firmly committed to supporting Artrole for the foreseeable future both towards the Post War event in 2009.

Andrew Mitchelson is Projects Manager at the Live Art Development Agency.

ArtRole is a UK-based contemporary arts organisation developing international cultural exchanges with the Middle East.

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