Hiwa K joins the video call from Iraqi Kurdistan, on the balcony of his apartment, deep indigo velvet sky behind him. He smokes cigarettes while listening intently to DARC Curator Amin Alsaden’s thoughtful questions. His answers are dark, raw, and honest, but he has an air of positivity—or maybe quiet resolution and acceptance—around him. Hiwa escaped the place of his birth more than 20 years ago, and today is reconciling his relationship with the land.
“I bought a small parcel of land and I now work with soil, trees, and the farmers here,” he shares.
Hiwa K is the third artist whose work is being displayed at Arts Court as part of Tending Land, DARC‘s 40th anniversary exhibition. Tending Land explores our relationship to land through the eyes of the selected artists. “It is an exhibition that is an acknowledgement and a tribute to Indigenous communities and their right to the land in the country we call Canada,” says Alsaden.
Every artist in this special exhibition has experienced the effects of colonialism and continues to endure its repercussions. Every piece is intense, profound, and deep with layers, highlighted by the immersive space where the art is showcased. Amin shares that visitors don’t expect to be so moved by the pieces at first, but many end up coming back to experience the artwork again and again, often after seeing the other pieces and making connections between them.
I, too, didn’t expect to be moved by Hiwa K’s 17-minute film at first. But attending Hiwa K: In Conversation right before visiting the exhibition provided me with the necessary background to fully understand the piece. Through Alsaden’s interview, I got to know the artist better and understood a fraction of how it felt to make the film and its significance.
The production follows Hiwa as he retraces the steps of his treacherous journey on foot from Iraqi Kurdistan to Europe, while balancing a tall beam laden with motorcycle mirrors on his nose. Hiwa’s voiceover adds a narrative to the balancing through the beautiful landscapes of the Middle East, Greece, and Italy. The artist undertook the journey in the 1990s to escape the oppression of the Kurdish people, travelling only at night and always thinking about not being caught at the borders. Seldom eating, on a journey that lasted nearly six months. Learning that his father had passed away. Hiding in a truck, hoping it would be transported onto a ship. Eating the packaging of a cake because there was no food or water. Travelling for an unknown time in complete darkness.
“The first two days I couldn’t balance the object, I was too emotional. It was very difficult to revisit the place,” recalls Hiwa about the making of his 2017 film. The significance of balancing the object cannot be understated—looking up only at the motorcycle mirrors above, Hiwa can’t see where he places his feet. His vision is distorted by the glimpses of the earth underneath him, reflected in the mirrors, all at different angles. Perhaps it’s how he felt when crossing the beautiful landscapes at night, his vision and perception treacherous, unclear, and clouded by constant danger and fear. “Back then, it was much more difficult to leave than now. We go and if we survive, we survive; if we are dead, even better,” recalls the artist about a common sentiment between refugees leaving their families and homeland behind to search for safety and stability.
But the last thing Hiwa wants is to be fetishized as a refugee. “The West wanted me to be the ambassador of the refugees and reduce me to that. I stopped making art when I noticed this. I declined a large sum of money because it didn’t feel right. They always try to put you into a vertical, but you have to stay horizontal,” he says resolutely. And we have to make note of this, too. How often are artists supported through virtue signalling? Because an organization has to fill a quota? Not given true freedom to create? Asked to represent a whole population? We are all individuals.
“It’s a feeling of being a guest in your own country,” says Hiwa about living in his homeland, under oppression. “I am proud to be in a state of statelessness. The idea of home… Where your feet are, that’s your home.” The concept of displacement is present in all the works at Tending Land. How heartbreaking is it that displacement is now an innate part of our relationship to land, for so many people, in so many different places all over the world?
When I ask how people can help Kurdish folks from Canada, Hiwa laughs. “Make a visit, you are always welcome. Work with local communities and artists. It’s about humanity, not nations. Build relationships, grow things together. Consume less. Wherever you go, that’s your land.”
“Pre-Image, Blind as the Mother Tongue” is on display at DARC until April 29. Stay tuned for works by Monira Al Qadiri, Samari Chakma + Naeem Mohaiemen, Nguyễn Trinh Thi, Joel Spring and Caroline Monnet, complete with educational programs and virtual interviews.