Hiwa K: Do you remember what you are burning?
On ViewJameel Art Centre
Do you remember what you are burning?
December 16, 2020 – July 24, 2021
Hiwa K may be in Berlin now, where he settled after fleeing his hometown of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Gulf War of 1990–91. But when you ask him where he’s based, without fail, he’ll quip “on my feet!” It has become sort of a trademark of his to load hacky art market jargon with geopolitical connotations. “It’s not just a joke, I like to twist things around,” he says, explaining his way of inadvertently ousting the fallibility of the asylum granting apparatus, the jingoism of borders, and the Augéian nonplace of a state of war. This fiery take is more than a stint—the video, performance, and installation artist crept up the borders of Germany some three decades ago, traveling by foot through Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, building a reservoir of material that continues to undergird his work.
His debut solo exhibition in Asia and the Middle East, Do you remember what you are burning? at the Jameel Arts Center, features works produced in the last 10 years that overflow into the Center’s outdoor Sculpture Park, where his One Room Apartment (2008–2017) stands defiantly. Originally commissioned for Documenta 14, the roofless cement structure topped with a dismal single-sized bed covered in yellowing sheets, is a replica of the single-occupancy dwellings that started mushrooming around the minefields of Sulaymaniyah in the wake of the Gulf War. “It’s funny because these rooms came with the promise of the American dream, but what kind of dream and hope would fit in such small spaces,” he says. To Hiwa, the spread of sardine can-like constructions correlated with the economic shock therapy that saw waves of neoliberal values and policies wash over the Iraqi way of life. More and more people valued breaking away from the pack by living alone, and an economic necessity created the conditions for remote job opportunities that would break up familial unities. This new dawn, according to the artist, has swapped the prototype of the brow-beating, mustachioed Arab dictator with another form of oppression, “it’s the Market Dictatorship, if you will,” says Hiwa. “You know what though, say what you will, at least Saddam kept us together,” he laughs.
In similar sardonic undertones, Hiwa scoffs at the loopholes perforating the EU migration system. In his film View from Above (2017), he features the ravages of WWII through a maquette of Kassel in 1945. Accompanying the slow-moving, overhead shots is the artist’s voice, narrating the story of a man who is memorizing the nooks and crannies of the city he claims to have fled, not as experienced on the ground, but from the flat, one-dimensional aerial view of a map. Such information is necessary in order to answer migration officers’ investigations into the asylum seeker’s story to verify whether they are indeed escaping perilous territories. This schema was developed after the UN split Iraq into safe and unsafe zones in 1991, deeming Kurdistan a safe zone. The dangers of such a system are evident—topographies of cities under siege are fast changing and the reliance on a traumatized brain for recollection is error-prone. But most troubling, it turns the refugee status into a sort of performance in which the most convincing actor wins.
In conversation with the looping film is a work commissioned by Art Jameel, a large-scale woven carpet on which an aerial view of Baghdad is printed. Destruction in Common (2020) is coupled with an audio meditation by spiritual teacher Shunyamurti, and together, they invite viewers to scheduled sessions of mindfulness, albeit unconventional ones. The sacred utterances are more like rude awakenings: “It’s said that in order to enjoy a good drama, one must suspend one’s belief in a performance one knows is false …” Here, Hiwa draws parallels between the destruction of Kassel and that of Baghdad, pointing to the vicious cycle of war. “I don’t refer with my index, but with my pinky. I’m reminding Western powers of their past and their exportation of war globally,” he explains. But with his recent exploration of meditation, he worries about becoming a woo-woo New Age artist and cautions of being pigeonholed as such: “I don’t like to overdose my work with philosophy. When my mom understands it, I’m happy!” Indeed, he is unassuming, creating works out of the vernacular. In Nazhad and The Bell Project (2007–15), he constructed a copper bell using metal fragments of rockets, bombs, and bullets sourced from a scrapyard in Baghdad, while in Qatees (2009)—Sorani Kurdish for “stuck”—he created an eccentric device using found antennas to aid in the reception of radio signals that bypass the state-sanctioned channels.
Hiwa K’s work is deeply anecdotal, but he manages to avoid the pitfalls of esotericism by speaking to a universal skepticism in established narratives. He slyly recognizes the threat of tokenism peddled by European biennale- and exhibition-making machines and calls for renewed and simpler ways of allowing art to speak truth to power.