by Sherko Abbas & Hemin Hamid from Erbil and Sulaymaniyah
The memory of the place returns in a historical context
Sherko Abbas is a Kurdish-Iraqi artist. He was born in in 1978 in Iran, where his family lived as refugees, and returned to Iraq when he was two years old. He studied Fine Art in Sulaymaniyah and graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts from Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2015. He employs various media, including video, performance, sculpture and sound, to represent the sonic and visual memory and geopolitical situation of contemporary Iraq.
Hemin Hamid was born in 1973 in Erbil, where he also grew up. He studied at the Fine Arts Institute in Erbil in 1997 and later completed his BA in Arts with the University of Sulaymaniyah. Hemin exhibited his artwork and research in different parts of the world including UK, France, and Germany among others.
Sherko Abbas’s projectSherko’s project is based on the Red Security Building in the city of Sulaymaniyah, which was a symbol of Saddam’s era of executions, imprisonment and torture of Kurdish dissidents.
Sherko’s vague memories of seeing a caravan after the Red Security prison building was broken into when the city was liberated in 1991 stayed with him. At the time, Sherko was almost 11 years old when he saw the caravan with colourful women’s clothes, underwear, anti-pregnancy tablets and other materials. This left its impact on him, and years later he wanted to inquire further into this story and bring it back to life. Since 2008, Sherko has been trying to find documents and hints to recover some information. This caravan was seen for a few days during the uprising in the courtyard of the prison. It later disappeared without a trace; not even a memory or a story of it remains. The Red Security Building, its notorious history, its ugly architecture and formation have mystified Sherko, therefore he has been searching for evidence about various stories related to this building which is now a museum.
For Sherko, art is a platform to showcase reality and bring these events back, to give them a space and a voice, and to memorialise and document them as part of the history of Red Prison. The name of this part of his documentary is Paper Puppet Testimony, which recounts the stories of women in prison through experimental documentary.
Similarly, the memory of the footballers who played in this field before it became a prison is ignored also. There is a map of it, which highlights the land on which the prison was later built, a prison notorious for the persecution and torture of the city’s political activists. This part of the documentary is called ‘Map on Map’.
Sherko is interested in stories that are easily forgotten, and he wants to bring them to light and give them a platform to be narrated and told as new realities.
His project is a collection of photos, sketches and maps, as well as two documentaries. He uses the testimony of his father, who filmed the liberation of the Red Prison, to create sketches of the caravan.
Hemin Hamid’s projectHemin’s joint project with artist Sherko Abbas represents the plight of the people who once lived in the Erbil citadel and the Red Security Building in Sulaymaniyah and how, with the transformations of these locations, their memories were ignored and erased by the parties behind the restoration.
The Erbil citadel which is one of the most ancient places in the world, and has been inhabited for thousands of years. The citadel has been restored in different eras, the last restoration happening a few years ago. More than 800 families were relocated and compensated, but when Hemin began working with them for his project, he learned that they still miss the citadel and are sad to not be living there any longer.
This project was inspired by this fact. Hemin criticises the restoration of the citadel, which was not studied well; the people’s long history of living in this place was not considered. The citadel will be turned into a museum, and Hemin believes that it is not fair to ignore people’s memory in the process, which will erase their living experiences.
Hemin involved the former residents in the creation of a model of the citadel using only their memories of living there–no photos. His work comprises painting, performance and a model of the Erbil citadel: a small version of it made from clay according to people’s memory.
This project was exhibited in April 2019 in the city of Erbil, and Hemin is currently planning to exhibit it in Sulaymaniyah too.
Hemin and Sherko’s work question the transformation and restoration of both the citadel and the Red Prison, especially with regards to how the memories of those who lived in both locations and were relocated were erased. The artists believe that the authorities should not erase their memories and should instead study their lives, experiences, memories and belongings and incorporate them as part of the heritage of these museums. The telling of history and the transformation of places into museums are not neutral acts; political bias and power all play a part on whose story is remembered or erased.