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From Here To There

Art may be an international language but it has a national accent

Text: Michael Birt | Images: Walid Siti

Walid Siti waits outside his studio in London Fields, Hackney. There is no bell. He has a bright, welcoming face, is dressed in blue overalls, splattered with a palette of quiet colours, and shows a demeanour which is polite and modest. Siti's studio is crowded with work – large paintings, stacks of drawings and small installations filling the floor. He has painted the windowpanes a translucent white to soften the light, which looks like one of his canvases.

His journey to London has been long and rigorous. Born in Duhok, Kurdistan-Iraq, in 1954, he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1976. At that time, it was politically charged, there was much violence, fighting at night and sometimes during the day, even owning a typewriter could mean an arrest. His father was a political activist and the first person to establish a trade union in Duhok, often involved in conflicts and imprisoned.

In 1977, Siti left for Ljubljana, Slovenia. Iraq had good relations with the former Yugoslavia at the time. Here he studied printmaking, which was to be the foundation for his painting and drawing. In 1982, the political situation in Iraq had worsened and as an opponent to the Baathists, it was impossible for me to stay in Ljubljana or return to Iraq.

Instead, Siti travelled to London where, with the help of a friend, applied for political asylum. Eventually from a studio-come-bedsit in Tufnell Park, Siti began his life as an artist in London. He was unable to return to Iraq for another 16 years until a self-governing Kurdistan was formed in the north of Iraq. The mountains and rivers of Siti's homeland play an important role in Kurdish identity. A source of food, water and refuge. His hometown is surrounded by mountains on three sides and while exiled in London, they became a constant in his work. The Mountains series on canvas and paper are painted with great detail in acrylic; this quick drying medium allows for over-painting, sometimes diluted to create a translucent effect.

The light in his work is vibrant and animated. He says, for some reason, the light often comes from the right. His palette is of a few well-chosen earthy colours; the paintings appear abstract, with their numberless narrow lines but they do bear a visual resemblance to the mountains around Duhok. Although Siti likes to work on both large and small scale, it remains intimate whatever their size. Not only are his images visually seductive but also have a tranquility. 'I was not originally calm but fueled by upheaval, political tension and being a refugee. I settled slowly, bit by bit and my work has reflected that very accurately.'

Siti applies the same mesmeric lines to The River Zei series. The brushstrokes look like teeming rain, their fluidity dazzles and fascinates. While flying over Kurdistan on a trip home in 2010, he saw that the river forms a snaking, green body of water in a dry and golden landscape. The aerial view revealed the dry tributaries that once fed the waters of the Zei and its fragility.

Coming from a large family, Siti wanted to explore what it is that brings them together. 'It is good to be part of something, but at the same time personal freedom can be restricted by the social structure. The question is how to strike a balance between family tradition and the society you have moved to. Family Ties, 1997-2007, is about this attachment and conflict.'

In recent years, Siti has been working on installations, using his familiar motifs. In Handle with Care!, 2006, he asked a stonecutter in Duhok to produce 500 stones (5 x 6 x 9 cm). Each one was numbered as in the printmaking process and wrapped in thick clear plastic to form a mountain. Visitors to the exhibition were free to take individual pieces away. 'By taking the stone and presenting it in a new setting, I wanted, in part, to convey the delicate relationship between the Kurdish people and the intensive and chaotic reconstruction work now underway.'

Walid Siti's journey has been unlike that of many artists, with a poignant distance from his homeland, and often alone in his early days in London. He has produced a body of work of dramatic beauty that carries a complex array of experiences. 'In the past few years, I have discovered more about my work and me. Not always is everything apparent when I do it. The process of my work develops and rejuvenates me and I am sometimes surprised by what I do.'



Walid Siti's work is in the public collections of The British Museum;The Imperial War Museum and Victoria& Albert Museum in London; The NationalGallery of Amman, Jordan; and The WorldBank and The Iraq Memory Foundation,both in Washington DC.


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