TORONTO — The lynchpin of Hiwa K’s Do you remember what you are burning? at the Power Plant is a giant copper bell, mounted onto a wooden frame and equipped with a rope so visitors can ring it. Though the Iraqi Kurdish artist’s retrospective, his first solo exhibition in Canada, spans two floors and several galleries, the work feels like the axis around which all else rotates — evoking the history of bells as calls to gather and unify.
A different history of bells — especially the large bronze ones ornamenting places of worship in Europe — was their seizure by governments hungry for metal to feed World War I machines. K’s bell has undergone a reverse transfiguration from those melted down to create munitions. The bell was forged from copper salvaged by a Kurdish scrapyard owner named Nazhad, who sifts through abandoned battlefields to reclaim fragments of discarded weaponry and land mines, and melts them down for repurposing. The artist collaborated with the Bell Project in Italy to create bells using the same method as those that were sacrificed to war. This one is adorned with reliefs, including the Mesopotamian deity Ismassu, that make direct reference to the looted antiquities that have funded militant jihadist groups in West Asia.
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There are many overlapping layers of cultural conflict in Northwest Iraq and neighboring Syria. Assyrian people have a legacy as one of the oldest indigenous nations of the Middle East, and with it, a history of brutal oppression by surrounding cultures, including the Kurds. The use of Assyrian motifs on the bell is an example of “Kurdification” — a kind of co-opting of cultural identity that is increasingly controversial as marginalized subsets of Iraqi populations (including Iraqi Christians) find their voice. The use of Mesopotamian imagery adds another layer of politics to an already complex international discourse orchestrated by an artist who is himself a refugee. More broadly, this cycle is an apt metaphor for a life deformed by trauma and then undergoing a renewal and return to self — but a self that is not free from its own set of prejudices. It is much to take from an inanimate object, even one with so strong a voice.
Hiwa K’s larger oeuvre often seems to meditate on similar cycles of creation. He identifies as a performance artist, but his output encompasses video, installations, and international collaborations. The latter in particular examine humanitarian challenges that transcend nationality and borders, while being constantly subjected to the legalities surrounding them, whether documenting and engaging in overt acts of protest or presenting objects and artifacts that encapsulate the human suffering of geopolitical conflict.
The artist’s diverse and explicitly geopolitical interests are subtly drawn together by a desire to help reclaim spaces, people, or cultures that have been lost to themselves. This is perhaps unsurprising in light of K’s experience as a refugee, which led him to trek from Iraq to Germany on foot. His 2007 performance “Moon Tower,” shown here on video, took place at the Amna Suraka (Red Security) building in K’s birthplace of Sulaymaniyah, a detention site for Iraq’s Kurdish population under the rule of Saddam Hussein. In the video, K monitors his own heart through a stethoscope and tries to dance to its rhythm. As the physical exertion of the dance increases his heartbeat, he tries and tries to catch up with it. The effort is futile but poetic. K returned again to Amna Suraka in 2009 for “Diagonal,” a photograph in which he strains to push down a dilapidated water tower.
In an adjoining room, “Qatees” (2009) recreates a series of documents and artifacts surrounding Abbas, an electrician and antenna maker who deserted from the Iran-Iraq War. Both sides of the conflict presented their own set of facts on radio broadcasts; from his residence in hiding, Abbas constructed an array of antennae that enabled him to hear news from both sources. Because both sides were only interested in broadcasting their victories, listeners — particularly people trying to find information on relatives who may have been injured, killed, or captured — could only learn the truth by listening to both newsfeeds.
These are just a few examples from an intense and intensive survey highlighting an artistic practice that is inextricable from political action, community building, and collective identity-work. Though the artist is physically present and often seen in his works, he also serves as a proxy through which the complexities of Gulf War politics, refugeeism, dictatorship, and resilience can be examined in intuitive and material ways.
The exhibition takes its title from a 2011 protest work K performed in Saray Azadi (Freedom Square) alongside local activists. He invited participants to read a book through a magnifying glass; the focused sunlight caused the pages to burn as they were read. K’s art is the same kind of lens — one that focuses attention in a manner so white-hot it consumes the subject and creates a new form.
Hiwa K: Do you remember what you are burning? continues at the Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) through August 28. The exhibition was curated by Noor Alé.