Dr Ceren Özpinar, Lecturer in History of Art and Design, introduces the context for her new research project, the subject of a University of Brighton Rising Stars award.


Where Matter Meets Memory: Alternative Political Futures in Kurdish Art Today

When the news hit the headlines in 2017, global society knew a little about the reality of war in Kurdistan, the region that covers the northern parts of Iraq, Syria and Iran, and southeast of Turkey. A Kurdish artist, Zehra Dogan, was being sentenced to 3 years in prison due to her portrayal of Turkish authorities destroying her hometown. During her time in prison, however, Dogan showed the world how resistance cannot be silenced as she painted tens of images with materials that were available to her, such as handmade dyes, newspaper and bedsheets.

Mobilising recent violent, political events, many new generation artists from Kurdistan have produced such visual narratives in the last decade. Using the possibilities of the everyday, they combine the methods of handicrafts and art-making, including paint, embroidery and collage. The recent global attention on such techniques in visual art, from the Pussyhat Project to the Troubled Textiles in Northern Ireland, demonstrates the significance of these art forms. More importantly, considering the unresolved situation in Kurdistan, they make the conflict and resistance visible within the public sphere by indicating imagined alternative futures.

In the past two decades, the people of Kurdistan have, more than ever, been oppressed politically and culturally and, as a result, have been increasingly separated and forced to live in other countries. The divided disposition of Kurdish people has increased the importance of exploring new avenues for community building across borders. The urgency of the unresolved political situation in Kurdistan and the recent history of displacement and dispersal of Kurdish communities show that now is a very crucial moment to secure more international recognition for this issue. The long-standing discourse within which the media and historical narratives have also negatively placed the experiences of Kurdish people, which confirms the timeliness of this project. These accounts often constituted official narratives unchallenged by individual and collective memories or artistic responses of Kurdish people.

My project will investigate the artworks produced within the displaced Kurdish communities in London and Berlin, with an aim to demonstrate how the experiences of war, conflict and resistance can be re-constituted as visual forms of knowledge through everyday materials and techniques that bridge transnational communities. It will show how the transmission and circulation of collective and individual memories through art negotiates the past and informs alternative political futures. As a result of communicating to public and academic audiences the art that bears witness to the Kurdish struggle, the project also aims to intervene in the way the stories of Kurdish people have been told in global media narratives.

Image credit: Zehra Doğan, Fistan, 2019, Mixed-media, Tarsus Prison. Courtesy of the artist.