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Marginalisation of Kurdish People: A study into Kurdish Art

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 4710 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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The Marginalisation of Kurdish People: A study into Kurdish art in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria in 1920-2011

This essay will look at each geographic area as a whole and will explore different sections of the stated time period (1920-2011) to discuss the treatment of Kurdish culture and language in these geographic regions and the ways in which Kurdish art has been censored.

The 20th century was an important turning point in Kurdish history, Brown, (1927) stated ‘Kurdish history is marked by a rising sense of Kurdish nationhood focused on the goal of an independent Kurdistan as scheduled by the Treaty of Sevres (Turkish peace treaty) in 1920’ Brown (1927)’. Kurds have a rich tapestry of traditions and values and yet, despite living for thousands of years in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria; Kurdistan is still not a country, defined instead as ‘geo-cultural’ region. Kurdistan encompasses northern Iraq (southern Kurdistan), north western Iran (eastern Kurdistan), south-eastern Turkey (northern Kurdistan), and northern Syria (western Kurdistan), Brown (1927).

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Perry (2004) has discussed that Kurdish people’s life challenges, after the ‘Lausanne Treaty’ of 1923, which set the ‘boundaries of modern Turkey’ (Brown 1927) but made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in their respective countries, the prime minister of Turkey (Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) began a Turkification process that included, the banning of all Kurdish school, associations, and publications: ‘Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was brutally quashed’ The BBC (2018). According to Perry (2004), the new blossoming of Kurdish poets, writers, and intellectuals who refer to themselves as Kurmanji (traditional name for Kurdish people) strikingly illustrates the relationship between cultural development and political freedom; Kurds have an unforgettable history across thousands of years, yet they have been ignored or cleared from Turkish history – even they do not speak their own language independently or express their art freely. Kurdish artist Zehra Dogan from Diyarbekir was sentenced to nearly three years in prison for creating a painting portraying the Kurdish town of Nusaybin after its destruction by Turkish security forces. Dogan said ‘I was given two years and 10 months only because I painted Turkish flags on destroyed buildings, Art and paintings can never be used in such a way. ‘Even the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity was denied. It is an undeniable truth that Kurds have been denied basic rights.’ The very words Kurds and Kurdistan were crossed out of the dictionaries and history book in 1950′ Artnet News (2018).

Figure 1: Kurdish artwork Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-43428432 [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

Turkish government often silences those who try to make light of the reality of the situation in Turkey. One such situation is the imprisonment of artist Zehra Dogan who expresses her art Dogan said ‘This is an attack on art and artistic expression.’ Artnet News (2018).Her continued imprisonment has been protested by British artist Banksy (figure 1 above). Whilst she is behind prison bars she is unable to represent her peoples struggle against oppression. His image portrays that Kurdish people are not only restricted of language, religion or history, their art and design has also been regulated.

Banksy states ‘free for Zehra Dogan, she still in sentence and, according to a press release about the painting, she is unaware of the tribute’ Kurdistan24 News (2018). Dogan send a letter to Banksy from prison stated that ‘horrible’ atmosphere in the prison where inmates commit suicide regularly. In days like these, one can’t endure living.’ Graffiti artist Borf, who has also spent time in prison for his controversial work, contributed to the painting of Dogan’s tribute. ‘I really feel for her. I’ve painted things much worthier of a custodial sentence’ Kurdistan24 News (2018). 

Similarly, Ferhad Khalil, who is from Rojava/Syria is using his art to bring the country back to previous time which have suffered years of war through the Syrian conflict, Khalil stated “I’ve always been interested in history and arts, especially designing,”  Rudaw News (2018). ”I want people to appreciate the value of history so that they understand the stories behind my work.” Since Khalil was unable to return to Afrin/ Syrian due to Turkish occupation, he created a painting to honour those who were affected by the conflict Rudaw News (2018).

The picture (figure 2) representing women who are etched upon her face, the faces upon the grave stones are etched in her memory. Perhaps they are her husband, her uncle, brother, nephew, or sister. He represents his peoples struggle against to life.

Figure 2:Kurdish artwork Source:http://www.rudaw.net/NewsDetails.aspx?PageID=393101&keyword=ISIS

Bari Seyitvan has also been incarcerated for his artwork, Seyitvan who is unable to express his art, Seyitvan also worked as a coordinator of Amed Art Gallery which was established at 2009 in Diyarbakir/Turkey. Amed Art Gallery was closed by Turkish government Qantara.de News (2018).  The Art Gallery provided people to express themselves in Art and Design, Seyitvan stated that ‘’people in Diyarbakir began to discover their artist by this art gallery, nobody was not aware that there were artists here before, until we opened exhibitions and prepared their catalos, this enabled them to be motivated and recognized” the reason why Amed art gallery Qantara.de News (2018).

In addition some artist had to leave their country to express their art independently. As example;  Ahmet Gunestekin ,Kurdish artist,  born in ‘Batman /Turkey he left the town of Batman for his career in 1991’,Candaş Kahya and Yetim, (2017) but had to wait several years before he found his own style at the beginning of the ‘2000s’. He then abandoned the figurative to launch himself into a ‘narrative abstraction’. Candaş Kahya and Yetim, (2017) ‘In November 2013; Marlborough Gallery’ opened its doors in New York to Güneştekin. After making a flamboyant introduction for Güneştekin with a solo exhibition, ‘Ahmet Güneştekin: Recent Paintings between 26 November and 4 January 2014, Marlborough Gallery prepared an intensive program for 2014′. The exhibitions that began in January with ‘Arco Madrid’ were followed by the ‘New York Armory Show, Art Breda, and Art Basel Hong Kong’. Afterward ‘Marlborough Monaco Gallery opened a solo exhibition by Ahmet Güneştekin from 18 September to 14 November’. His works are on display at the ‘Marlborough Galleries in Barcelona, Madrid, Monaco and New York’ at their permanent exhibition halls all the year round. CandaşKahya and Yetim, (2017).

Another reason why Kurdish artists unable to express their art, because of Turkish government close down Kurdish Television. ‘Although the closure of TV stations was not confined to Alevi channels, it has particular implications for the Alevi community by destroying its communicative capacity, infrastructure, relations with the viewers, and representation regime which are driven by the community’s political ambitions and attempts to sustain transnational connections.’Journals.sagepub.com,( 2018).

Kurdish television is significant for people to communicate each other, most of Kurds are do not know about Kurdish art, even the Kurdish background, the reason is that Kurdish history is not being documented, the television has been closed down. Kurds in Syria were worried, ‘subjected to discrimination, kidnappings, abuse, torture, and killing. Many did not have national identity or travel documents the experience of Kurdish and Alevi television epitomises the resistance against communicative ethnocide’. Both ‘TV10 and Yol TV’ (Kurdish channel)  do not regard their closure as an end but are looking for alternative ways to continue broadcasting, as well as seeking out temporary solutions in order to survive conditions under the ‘Turkish state of emergency’.Journals.sagepub.com( 2018)


This marginalisation of the people’s society and culture extends through to their creative expression which has been restricted, possibly due to the views and emotion some of the artists express in their work. Perry (2004p.72) has stated that ‘There is deep-seated hostility between the Turkish state and the country’s Kurds, who constitute 15% to 20% of the population’ Kurds received poor treatment from Turkish authorities for generations. Kurdish people have no rights – they may not even speak their language freely, even today, Kurdish lessons and Kurdish arthas been restricted. The BBC (2018) writing on the history of Kurdish people states that. In the ‘1920s and 1930s’, most of the Kurds were resettled,Kurdish names and clothes were banned, the use of the Kurdish language and art was restricted, writing on Artnet News (2018)Abdal-Jabbār and Dawod(2006, pp.3-6.) provide a concise analysis of where Kurds originate and explains clearly the history of Kurdish people, ‘The Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands in what is now south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Iraq, northern Syria, north-western Iran’.

There is a saying in Turkey that (Hyperallergic, 2018);‘cats have more rights than the Kurds’. For hundreds of years, the Kurdish people spread across different nations, have dreamed of independence or to get better life by moment of both greatness and tragedy.  Kurdish artist Janso Isso who is forced to flee his home in Syria, hopes to educate people in his new home of Canada about the long struggle of the Kurdish people through his artwork.
Janso Isso’s story begins in ‘Hasakah, northeastern Syria where he was born in 1974’. It was there that he realized his talent for art at the young age of seven, saying his talent is a gift from God. Isso stated “If a person is gifted by God, God will help him to accomplish his goals,” (CandaşKahya and Yetim, 2017).Isso also stated that ‘no one could even think creating art during those times, as the most important thing for a person to do was to work and support their family’. In ‘1998’, Isso left Syria to look for work in Lebanon and to follow his dream of becoming an artist. With no official training, he worked hard and taught himself how to paint and sculpt. (CandaşKahya and Yetim, 2017). According to my research most of Kurdish people are not aware of him, Isso might not express his art in a such a good way but still he is working hard.

(CandaşKahya and Yetim, 2017) stated ‘The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011’, caused massive instability in the region, within a short period of time between ‘1.5 and 2 million people from Syria were flooding the cities of the small country of Lebanon and a humanitarian crisis erupted’.Isso said that ‘this became a very difficult time for everyone living in Lebanon’; Kurds, Syrians and Lebanese alike found it hard to find a job, pay rent, and in some cases even obtain food. ‘Many refugees were desperate to save their families and were using Lebanon as a gateway to make it to Greece by boats to continue on to Europe to seek asylum’. 
Isso considered taking the same route, but at the last moment, he changed his mind as he didn’t want to put his wife and two daughters in danger. It was during those hard times that Isso’s paintings and sculptures started to (figure 3) ‘show the pain of my people traveling to Greece.’(CandaşKahya and Yetim, 2017)

Figure 3 image source: https://www.google.co.uk/search?rlz=2C1CHNY_enGB0538GB0538&biw=1126&bih=688&tbm=isch&sa=1&ei=qm3bW83hH8yagAbDyY_QDw&q=.+AHMET+G%C3%9CNE%C5%9ETEK%C4%B0N+%C3%87ALI%C5%9EMALari&oq=.+AHMET+G%C3%9CNE%C5%9ETEK%C4%B0N+%C3%87ALI%C5%9EMALari&gs_l=img.3…50955.59457.0.59837.….0…1c.1.64.img..14.0.0….0.PorxsFt9JDs#imgrc=yAt059vPYwsFKM:

Nowadays, Kurds supports for young artists to tell their stories through art by finding art space (community centre) located in the district of office, are creating important links between Kurds and international developments in contemporary art. ‘ Founded in 2017 by Şener Özmen, Erkan Özgen, Cengiz Tekin, and Deniz Aktaş, place has responded to challenges and threats to Kurdish culture by offering support for young artists in the region to tell their stories through art’ Hyperallergic,(2018). Their program brings to local audiences new, ‘cutting-edge developments in contemporary art’, ‘access to a library, studio spaces young artists can use for free, and mentorship by Loading’s founders’ Hyperallergic, (2018). This shows rather than simply combining the artist who live and produce in Diyarbakir/Turkey under one roof, community centre helps to grow and nurture the career of emerging artists. They also ‘starting to cultivate an expanding and rather impressive repertoire of materials such as books, magazines, and expensive biennale and exhibition catalogues, stemming from the early 2000s onward’ Hyperallergic, (2018).

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Anadolu Kültür is important organization teaching young people about art, school education, history, around Kurdish culture in Diyarbakır. In 2002, Anadolu Kültür provided support for the founding of the ‘Diyarbakır Arts Center (Diyarbakır Sanat Merkezi – DSM)’, an organization that provides support for culture and artists across the region. Yaşar Kemal and Bosquet, A. (1999).Actually Kurdish people create art to express what they feel or show how people struggle to stay a life. Yaşar Kemal and Bosquet, A. (1999) stated ‘Illustrator and painter whose works often explore human impacts on cities and struggles with urbanization, war, and trauma’. Also Anadolu Kültür was founded as a means of creating dialogue and peace after conflict between Kurds and the Turkish government ‘re-ignited in the 1990s’. ‘Erkan Özgen, one of well-known international artist’, who recently exhibited at Manifesta in Palermo and whose works have been acquired by many prestigious ‘Western institutions like the Tate Modern in London’. Ozgen teaching the next generation of artists from Diyarbakir/Turkey, it is not just about art, it’s a radical act of cultural self- preservation in the face of continuing government control and restriction. Yaşar Kemal and Bosquet, A. (1999).

One of the key programs Anadolu Kültür has been ‘organizing since 2011 is an initiative called BAK: Revealing the City through Memory’ (Hassan, 2018).

The BAK project aims to circumvent cultural misunderstanding across different parts of Anatolia by building bridges between different cities through art. (Hassan, 2018) has stated ‘We thought about starting a program that enhances artistic production in a collaborative way,’ the idea was to bring together young people from different cities across Turkey, building for them a sustainable framework to collaborate through artistic and cultural exchange. In 2011, BAK included participants from ‘diverse regions like Aydın, Balıkesir, Batman, Çanakkale, Diyarbakır, İzmir, Mardin, Muğla, Şırnak, and Urfa’, all of whom were brought together under the theme of recording different stories about their daily lives, using media like film and photography. Hasan H. (2018)

 Kurdish people trying different ways to show kurd’s life, they have culture, history, artists, TV,  Hasan H.(2018) stated ‘surrounded by the debris of apartment blocks and bombed-out streets, these spaces offer some glimmer of hope against the ongoing cultural and ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people, a dangerous task to be sure, but nevertheless one of monumental importance’.In Diyarbakir/Turkey people are more understanding and trying their best to show their art. Hasan H.(2018) stated ‘being in Diyarbakır brings about methods of coping with hard times through the arts, we’re trying to act but always with caution, responsibility and sensitivity to the issues young artists are facing today’.

In addition to Kurdish art such as paintings and illustrations, Kurdish people have traditional decorative art, Deisser (2013) writing on the importance of Kurdish decorative art, which has had an important ‘socio-cultural’ impact on the lives of generations, Kurdish people have traditional carpet weaving, the most popular patterns include ‘floral, medallions, Mina Khan motifs, and geometric patterns’.  Some weavers also use symbols to depict their dreams, wishes, and hopes. They also use different colours such as deep blue, green, saffron, terracotta, and burnt orange hues, which is effective with interesting motifs and colours, the main function of decorative art is to decorate something other than itself, an object, a room, a building front. The uniqueness of Kurdish decorative arts is that their creation and production have been a continuous process for centuries and are still an integral part of their traditions and resources, the decorative arts of the nomadic Kurds of Iraq have been shaped mainly by their immediate natural environment. The materials available to them have shaped their designs and thus the objects they make have been influenced directly or indirectly by their lifestyle. Deisser (2013) stated ‘In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Hamilton Road which built in the early 1930s’ crosses Kurdistan from Erbil/Iraq to the Iranian border provides a major example of how the decorative arts can be influenced by economic dynamics. The Textile Museum was established in 2004 by Lolan Sipan because he believed that decorative art textiles were fundamental to the culture of the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. As well as exhibiting examples of these materials, the museum is also used for community events, such as teaching textile techniques and music festivals. Deisser (2013)

There is also traditional costume or dress which is very diverse colourful, such as green, red, yellow and unique to each Kurdish tribe. Usually, women have a long dress, traditional colourful shoes and have precious stones. Traditional clothing for men includes a turban wrapped around the head and traditionally a dagger bound into the large sash at the waist. However, Kurdish clothing differs from country to country. People are still wearing this traditional dress in Kurdistan. Over the years, the use of traditional dress in Turkey has changed, Christensen, (2018) states that this is ‘possibly due to religion’. Today older women dress in darker colours, while young Kurdish and girls are the one who wears brighter colours in Turkey. People who live in Turkey do not wear traditional clothes. Christensen,(2018) has also recorded a Kurdish album (Figure 5 below) which focuses on the folk songs of Kurds who were living in Western Iraq in early 1960. The result of research Kurdish music is broadly divided into three types; ‘reflecting differences in location, social strata, and liner notes’Christensen (2018). As explained in more detail in Christensen’s liner notes,‘urban popular music is played by professional musicians; rural broadest category, which does not require that performers have special training, consists of music associated with the daily lives of the people including work songs, children play songs, holiday songs’ Christensen(2018).

Writing on Kurdish Dance (halay) theChristensen(2018) text provides an interesting observation about the Kurdish dance which is all people, women, and men dancing together, it is a form of circle dance with single or couples, holding hands, standing shoulder to shoulder similar to ”Middle Eastern” countries.


Kurdish people are the ‘second-largest ethnic group in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.’ They are ‘the largest group in Iran.’ The Kurdish language is related to ‘Persian or Farsi,’ the language is spoken in Iran. Until 1991, it was illegal to speak Kurdish in Turkey; currently, Kurdish lessons are still not taught at school, there are no Kurdish signs in hospitals or on the street. ‘If Kurds want to create their own state and publish what they like, let them go and do it somewhere else’ Kocer and Can writing on ‘Kurdish Documentary Cinema in Turkey’ (2016) in a comprehensive and useful analysis of Kurdish history show it is clear that despite constant opposition, Kurdish people have not stoppedtrying to get their rights;the writers expressed ‘this decade’s most elaborated and developed documentary production in Turkey comes from Kurdistan, a name that provokes nationalist panic in Turkey.’ About ‘fifteen million Kurds live in Turkey’ most of them are in South East of Turkey. Kocer, and Can(2016).

Writing on (BBC 2018), the Iraqi Kurds are the most religious Kurdish. The culture of Iraqi Kurds is closer to Islam when compared to the other Kurds who live in Turkey. Kurd’s religion is Alavi in Turkey. Iraqi Kurds are much more liberal than the Arabs, Iraqi and Syria.  Especially,‘women tend to remain powerless and being physical, social, economic and political vulnerabilities’(BBC 2018). This information provides that not only for men, both Kurdish men and women are insignificant. Kurdish people who live in the village are forged from their home by war. Kurdish people are fighting to defend their traditional homeland, art, literature, traditions against the modern armies of state power around them. People are struggling to stay alive. Lots of women and men are being killed; father, dad, brother or children ‘two young brothers and their mother were among at least 12 Syrians who died on a boat headed for Greece.’  (The Guardian news 2015). For example, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background, he and his family were labelled ‘Syrian refugees trying to reach Canada’. They left their country to have a better life, but he could not survive. (The Guardian news 2015). Despite the financial crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan and the security crisis in the rest of Iraq, that affects the northern region too, the city of ‘Sulaymaniyah is hanging onto its title as the most arty and cultural place in the country’ (The Guardian news 2015). Sulaymaniyah was named the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders, government and legislation and operates semi-independently of the rest of Iraq. And although there’s been some criticism of the title, the city’s leaders and artists are proud to say that they’re continuing to run cultural events, festivals and exhibitions, despite difficulties. Despite all the difficulties there is still a lot going on, Marv Cole said that, a lecturer at the University of Sulaymaniyah. ‘The fact that people want to take part and want to create is a sign that they want to live.’ During my reaseach there are still plenty of artistic and cultural activities happening in Sulaymaniyah and the severe crisis in Iraq has not affected such events in the city.Kole stated that ‘Nothing can make this city lose its enthusiasm for art,’ kole says. ‘I’m just disappointed in the local government. They have really marginalised arts and culture here.’ (The Guardian news 2015).

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List of illustrations:

(Figure 1) BBC News. (2018). Banksy’s protest art unveiled in New York. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-43428432 [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

Figure 2:Kurdish artwork Source:http://www.rudaw.net/NewsDetails.aspx?PageID=393101&keyword=ISIS


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