Hiwa K: Blind as the Mother Tongue
NEW MUSEUM | MAY 2 – AUGUST 19, 2018
In the darkened space of the New Museum’s first floor gallery—with exposed drywall, bricks, and pipes—one encounters the Iraqi-Kurdish artist Hiwa K’s first major U.S. solo exhibition, Blind as the Mother Tongue. The carefully curated exhibition—centered around five videos accompanied by photographs, vinyl drawings, sketches, and sculptures—is an introduction to the absurdist artist, who self-describes as both a materialist and a conceptualist sculptor, and also as a traditional Marxist, whose political ideologies have been contradicted by the nuances of Middle East’s history.
Hiwa K’s experimental art meditates on everyday life of his hometown, Sulaymaniya, a Kurdish city that is stuck by the border of Iran and Iraq—historically burdened by the turmoil of two oppressive nation-states yet robbed of its own nationhood. The artist turns mundane aspects of life in the region into parables with unclear lessons, carrying his metaphors through beyond rationality. Rather than aiming to educate or provide a neat resolution for the conflicts he discusses, Hiwa K brings us to the heart of his town’s complex history and its many complexities.
His pieces typically begin by examining the production of tools—utilitarian objects, weapons, and toys alike—then move through a set of social and political free associations inspired by the fabrication process, gradually escalating to become nearly nonsensical. Right outside the entrance is the first half of For a Few Socks of Marbles (2012), a large vinyl graphic illustrating the rules to a game of marbles. This turns out to be the Kurdish version—a vertical and regulated game that assures minimized loss or gain, which, for Hiwa K, symbolizes the Kurd’s old Keynesian approach to economy and politics. Upon entering, one finds another similar vinyl (the work’s second half), illustrating the Arab version of the game, which is played horizontally, with few rules and increasing stakes. The exhibition’s accompanying wall text explains that artist takes this as stand-in for a neoliberal economy that encourages risk-taking.
Hiwa K continues with these spiraling thoughts, and the wall text places further symbolic meaning on the artist’s childhood game. The vertical game comes to illustrate the Iran/Iraq war, in which two sides with equal power fought for eight years, while the whole world profited from selling weapons to both sides. The horizontal game represents the Gulf War, as the artist recalls that Iraqi weapons could not even reach the height of the attacking United State planes; power belonged solely to one side.
The two illustrative vinyls are followed by a ten minute video that focuses on the marbles’ creation. It is a compilation of minute-long clips documenting an adolescent boy carving into a block of concrete on the street to slowly make himself a marble. The sound of the boy striking the stone fills the entire space as the marble is gradually made. Without spending much time on the final object, the video loops, and the boy starts all over again. One is left only with the care and labor that the boy puts in his making.
A sculptor at his core, Hiwa K dedicates each work to an object and its making, utility, recycling, or destruction. Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017), the centerpiece of the exhibition, traces the path many immigrants take from Turkey to Greece, and eventually, Italy—a path Hiwa K personally made two decades ago. The piece revolves around a single device; this time, it is long, self-made pole with a dozen motorbike mirrors branching off of it. The artist balances this object on his face as he embarks upon this pilgrimage; he is forced to move carefully, look up, and view the world only through the mirror’s fragmentations. Accompanying these visuals, a voiceover tells a story that blurs the lines between biography and fiction. A series of surreal recollections describe what such a journey forces a human being to do: from having to carry luggage filled with your beloved abstract paintings, to missing the chance to mourn a parent, who passed on after you left. Separated from your home, you become nothing but a set of moving feet, wandering hour after hour, day after day, sometimes in utter darkness—left with nothing but your hunger and your mother tongue. Hiwa K’s enduring performance, the alluring videography, and the poetry in his words create a moving piece that enters the core of the refugee crisis, the humanitarian disaster of our time.
The exhibition’s ending piece, The Lemon Tastes of Apple (2011), stands in contrast to Pre-Image. Here, politics are anything but humanist and universal. In an odd intervention, Hiwa K and a small band of musicians join a protest in Sulaymaniya against state corruption. They play the soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in the West—a 1960s Spaghetti Western—to poke fun at the foundational hypocrisy of Iraqi Kurdistan, reliant upon the United States’ 2003 Imperial invasion for its semi-autonomy. The artist refuses to subtitle this piece; only Kurdish speakers are invited into the details of the uprising. The rest of the viewers are left only with images of bodies rushing, confusion, teargas, and unrest, as the protest escalates. Hiwa K plays on in the midst of it all. The “Lemon” in the work’s title refers to the present, as lemon juice is a current-day remedy for teargas; the “Apple” to the past, it is the smell people associate with Saddam Hussein’s brutal chemical attacks on the Kurds in the ’80s. In contemporary turbulences, Hiwa K finds the echoes of the unresolved past.
Blind as the Mother Tongue leaves us somewhere between these two pieces, which envision the Kurd’s struggle as universal in Pre-Image, and as inescapably marked by specific regional history in The Lemon. Given enough time and attention, the intricate conversations fostered among the works here provide what can never be explained through studies, debates, and lessons on the Kurdish People and the Middle East: Hiwa K takes us along a personal journey of an artist and a maker who is deeply concerned with politics, but feels void of the personal power, resolution, or the hope needed for action. In Blind as the Mother Tongue, one is left with allegories without moral endings, tales of our global era of political paralysis.