“We exist. We have artists, we have stories, we have things to say.”
For artist Kamal Ahmad, the first question he most often gets asked is the hardest to answer: “Where are you from?”
“It seems obvious, but for me I have to explain … I am Kurdish, from Kurdistan. But there is no Kurdistan. They may say, You are from the Iraqi part, right?
“I say, No, it is true it says Iraqi in my passport, but there was a genocide by the Iraqi government and they tried to kill all the Kurdish people. So I am not, in my language, in my culture.
“You are in a really weird situation—if you ask Kurds from any region, we have a country, but the country is more in our hearts,” Ahmad explained in an interview.
“It’s not my fault that you can’t see it. It’s not my fault that you cannot see the stars during the day. The stars are still there even if you can’t see them.”
Ahmad was perfectly at home sitting in a sunny corner of the Starbucks across from the Artists Asylum gallery where his latest exhibition is on view. Accessorized with a beard, glasses, scarf, and laptop, he could be just another one of the myriad of young professionals and graduate students who populate this corner of Allston. But as he begins to tell me about his early life in Iraqi Kurdistan, it becomes apparent that there is a jarring disconnect between the gentrified cliche of our surroundings and what he experienced as a child.
Growing up as a member of a marginalized group in a war-torn country, his early years were characterized by instability, poverty, and the genocidal attacks of the Iraqi government, known as the Anfal campaign. Ahmad’s traumatic early experiences led him to look for an emotional outlet.
“Art was an unconditional space for me to do whatever I want, say whatever I want, and not keep it in and damage me mentally,” Ahmad said.
None of his family members are artists, but his mother enthusiastically supported his talent and his brother living abroad helped financially. Ahmad started creating with whatever materials he had at hand; in one case, he made sculptures using the mud in his yard and drawing on the blackboard at school at the request of his teachers. After being accepted to a fine arts program for secondary school, he expanded to making watercolor paint from used tea leaves and oil paint from soil mixed with oil. He haunted alleyways behind local markets after hours, selecting the best pieces of cardboard from the trash and carefully cutting and smoothing them into canvases.
An overnight shift at a bottling plant wrecked his sleep, but allowed Ahmad to afford art supplies. His talent soon became apparent, and with the help of a teacher at his fine arts secondary school, he began selling his work. He graduated at the top of his class there as well as at university and in time, his art became a fixture in his hometown of Sulaymaniyah.
Ahmad had found success, stability, and recognition, but he lived surrounded by the trauma of his childhood.
“You get to a point where emotionally, psychologically, you cannot stay in that place anymore,” the artist said. “Everyday a painful memory would come back.”
Eventually, it became clear that he needed to leave Sulaymaniyah for his own psychological health. But there was another important reason why Ahmad felt the pull away from Kurdistan.
“As Kurdish people, we haven’t had the chance to express to the world what happened to us,” he said. “We need someone out there to represent our existence. We exist. We have artists, we have stories, we have things to say.”
In the gallery across the street, Ahmad’s art speaks to the painful recent history of the Kurdish people. Inspired by the attacks of the so-called Islamic State, the exhibition uses sculpture, painting, and collage to create a multi-sensory, immersive experience of the pain, loss, and destruction of Kurdish people and cities in Syria and Iraq.
The primary material Ahmad worked with for this show are bedrolls—thin mattresses that people all throughout the region use in lieu of space-hogging wooden bed frames and thick mattresses. Through Ahmad’s manipulation, these bedrolls become stand-ins for both people and their memories—with pin sticks to bullet holes, they appear to have suffered all kinds of physical trauma. The wounds take on a disturbingly flesh-like appearance as they are stitched up with taught brown thread. They are dirty and worn, but still hold precious memories, represented by sumptuous pieces of fabric that peek out from the wraps of the mattress.
Two large, multi-mattress rolls dominate the physical and mental space in the center of the gallery. One is covered with printed black-and-white photos of a ruined city; another is covered with a variety of elaborate fabrics that Ahmad’s mother sent from Sulaymaniyah and studded with inexpensive accessories like hair clips and beads.
Pervading the whole exhibition is the smell of clove wafting from studded apples floating in the window. Clove apples are a symbol of love, longevity, and steadfastness, but apples also have a sinister history for Kurdish people. One of the chemical weapons used against the Kurdish people in Iraq during the Anfal campaign smelled like overripe apples—Ahmad uses this bittersweet symbol to both create a stronger memory of his work for the visitor, but also to reclaim something that became associated with death and terror.
Ahmad said that the exhibition took partial inspiration from images he saw during Islamic State attacks on Kurdish cities of people dying under bombed buildings, still lying on their bedrolls. This same image has been tragically repeated in recent weeks as rescuers have combed through the rubble of thousands of collapsed buildings in the wake of an earthquake in southern Turkey. The destruction was centered in the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Syria and came in the middle of the night when the vast majority of people were sound asleep. Victims, both dead and alive, have been pulled out of their ruined homes wrapped in colorful quilts, blankets, and shawls.
This is no coincidence. Ahmad purposely tries to abstract his art so that it both tells the story of the violence wrought on a particular people, in a particular time and place, and tragedies elsewhere such as the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Yemen, or the destruction of a massive earthquake. Still, the timeliness of the exhibition was unexpected.
“A lot of people have come up to me and asked me if it was specifically about [the earthquake],” Ahmad said.
His art chronicles pain, loss, and destruction, but the fact that he is able to tell the story of the Kurdish people is in itself reason to hope. For him, Ahmad said, “Art is hope.
“Art gives us a better, more beautiful life. Art gives us a reason to live.”
Derealization: Kurdistan, Art & Memory is on view at the Crossings Gallery at the Harvard Ed Portal through Feb. 23.