Art and Agency: Transforming Relationships of Power in Iraqi Kurdistan

Art and Agency: Transforming Relationships of Power in Iraqi Kurdistan

Autumn Cockrell-Abdullah
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3001-5.ch016
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This chapter places the practices of Kurdish visual artists working in Iraqi Kurdistan within the historical context of the Iraqi state and discusses the production of artwork, particularly the creation of the Museum of Modern Art and the Sulemani International Film Festival, as they demonstrate the transitional nature of power and the struggle for cultural dominance within Iraqi Kurdish society. Once the sole or major patron of most artwork produced in Iraqi Kurdistan, the government is no longer funding most projects. The loss of this major patron has significantly changed the relationship between government (patron) and artist (client) creating opportunities for artists to develop alternative sources of support. The work of these artists reveals the struggle of a nation to transform historical relationships of power and to develop a sustainable civil society and a long-term, sustainable peace.
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The “Kurdish Question”, as it is sometimes called, refers to a regional conflict including a people who stretch across territories that include the countries of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. The Kurds have often been referred to as “the world’s largest nation without a state” (King 2014, Brenneman 2007). This “question” has spanned more than two centuries and includes complex historical, political, social, cultural and economic factors. While there is no politically recognized independent state known as “Kurdistan”, it is socially recognized by millions of Kurds as their ethnic homeland (King, 2014: p. 3). Since 1992, however, the Kurds within the state of Iraq do have a recognized territory referred to as the Autonomous Kurdish Region. “Kurdistan”, as both an imagined homeland and a territorial reality in northern Iraq, functions as a quasi-state and is a powerful motivator for many Kurds in the Middle East and around the world. Today, Kurds in Northern Iraq are employing Kurdish ethnic identity in unique ways to gain greater advantage and justification for an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. To consider the negotiation and strategic adaptation of relationships of power within Iraqi Kurdistan is, in fact, to deeply consider the relationship between politics and culture (Conklin, 1997) yet it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what cultural dynamics are at play especially in a question as complex the Kurdish one. The work of political scientist, John Paul Lederach, focuses on understanding the dynamics of protracted violence and why breaking violent patterns of behavior is so difficult. It also highlights peacebuilders' capacity to imagine and create constructive processes that are rooted in the real-world challenges of violence that are able to transcend these destructive patterns (Lederach, 2005; Maiese, 2016). Lederach places the creative process at the center of conflict resolution and encourages us to engage the creative process in ways that help to bring about social change that may transform human relationships.

Oliver Ramsbotham, noted for his original approach to handling 'intractable' conflict along with the works of John Paul Lederach and John Galtung argue in favor of a place for the arts in conflict resolution as a means of “energizing the field by liberating the imagination and the emotions in pursuit of creativity in peacemaking” (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse & Miall, 2011: p.358). Where might we begin that we have not begun before? What critical sources of knowledge are, as yet, left untapped? What alternative approaches might we pursue to gain access to such knowledge? In answering these questions, we may rightly view the Arts as a highly significant tool for Kurdish people who are internally diverse, dispersed and in a state of liberation to bring together their notions of the Kurdish nation as state (Gundogu, 2010). Kurdish art, then, presents itself as an interesting intersection for social critique where peoples, cultures and institutions overlap and where identities are performed and contested.

Considering our focus on the protracted nature of the Kurdish Issue in Iraq, we will first map the multiple of stages of conflict through which the Kurds have traveled, from the creation of the autonomous Kurdish region, after the first Gulf War, up until the present time. From this point, we will examine the unique potential of the Arts to inform the peacebuilding process and, in doing so, engage with Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch's models for strategic arts-based peacebuilding. Utilizing these models, the chapter will then consider the changing nature of patron-client relationships in Iraqi Kurdistan, between government-as-patron and artist-as-client. An examination of this patron-client relationship will demonstrate a weakened patron-client relationship and points of contestation but suggests that despite structural changes to the bureaucracy in Iraqi Kurdistan, the patron-client relationship model predominates in relationships of power in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Protracted Conflict: A conflict that is complex, severe, and enduring. The theory was developed by Edward Azar and may also be known as “intractable conflict.”

Positive Peace: Johan Galtung, the father of peace studies, explains that positive peace includes the active restoration of relationships, the creation of social structures that serve the needs of the whole population. In contrast, “negative peace” is simply the absence of violence, like a cease-fire.

Kurdistan: Contemporary use of the term is challenging to understand, and the name has come to mean multiple things to different groups of people. Kurdistan refers territories stretching across the countries of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Kurdistan is socially recognized by millions of Kurds as their ethnic homeland; however, there is no politically recognized independent state. However, since 1992, the Kurds within the state of Iraq do have a recognized, autonomous territory referred to colloquially as “Kurdistan” and governed by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Kurdistan as both an imagined homeland and a territorial reality in Northern Iraq is quiet real and is a powerful motivator for many Kurds in the Middle East and around the world.

Ethnography: Based primarily on fieldwork, or on-location research, ethnography is a detailed description of a single culture. Ethnographic field methods primarily include, but are not limited to, conducting in-depth interviews and participant observation, or learning a people’s culture through first-hand participation.

Grounded theory: Discovers patterns that emerge out of the collection of data and constructs theory through the analysis of that data.

Peacebuilding: Generally refers to the active transformation of relationships and structures to reduce the chance of future conflict. Historically, peacebuilding has been thought of as being conducted after the cessation of violence; however, it has come to be thought of more broadly and can take place at any stage of the conflict.

Kurdish: Describes an ethnic and linguistic heritage. Though geographically spread out and culturally diverse, the term “Kurdish” refers to those individuals who self-identify as being ethnically Kurdish. This term also refers to the native languages of the Kurds, as an ethnic group, to include Kurdish Sorani, Badini, Kermanji, and Howrami dialects.

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