Meem Gallery is proud to bring Fragile Construct: Recent Works by Walid Siti to Dubai. The exhibition contains recent works that include the mediums of film, sculpture, painting and drawing. This is the first time Walid Siti’s films have been shown in the GCC.
Exhibition Essay by Dr. Sarah Johnson
Two towers loom large in Walid Siti’s artwork, one manmade being the 9th century Malwiya minaret of Samarra encompassing both the hubris of political power and the genius of an unknown architect. The other being the mountains of his native Kurdistan, formed by nature, however central to the myth and identity of the region’s residents.
The mountains overshadowed Siti’s childhood in Dohuk in the 1950s and 1960s. They were often painful reminders of the personal impact the political situation of Iraq had on him. His father spent a lot of time between 1961 and 1970, formative years of Siti’s life, hiding in the mountains with the Kurdish National movement. The physical presence of the minaret at Samarra was more enigmatic. Siti never visited the minaret while growing up in Iraqi Kurdistan, instead he saw the monument from the bus going to and from art school while studying at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad from 1971 to 1976.
It was not the physical presence of these monuments that inspired Siti to fixate on them as topographic leitmotifs in his work. It was when Siti was exiled to London in 1984 at the age of thirty that he began to focus on these ‘icons’ as he calls them. His first ink drawings and woodblock prints from his time in exile root his iconic mountains and Malwiya minaret in symbolic landscapes of Iraq. The towers are just one of many symbols, which also included flags, eerie sculptural heads and arches that Walid depicted in his work. The longer he spent away from Iraq, the more he concentrated on these two towers.
Siti found power in these two forms through their continual reworking in his practice. With a scientific methodology, he continues to study these forms through hundreds of sketches, leading to a painting or a sculpture. The more Siti reworks these towers in his practice, the more abstracted and distanced they become from their original geographic contexts. In “Build, Unbuild, Rebuild” from 2023 on display in this exhibition at Meem Gallery, the distinctive spiral of the Malwiya minaret dominates the centre of the canvas. Yet Siti obfuscates the minaret with hundreds of imbricated cubes, which seem to unravel the tower on its left hand side into chaotic black lines. Similarly, in his sculpture “Fragile Construction II” from 2019, the geographic specificity of the spiral stairs breaks apart into individual wires. In his triptych from his Silent Mountain series, lines of white paint act as a screen separating the viewer from the geographic forms of the mountains. As in his other works, their rhythmic repetition competes with the landscape of mountains behind them.
Siti’s compositions force the viewer to focus on the building blocks of his towers, this being his practice, whether they are acrylic lines of paint or aluminium wires. His materials, often found and inexpensive, more than the representations they create, are central to Siti’s practice. On the one hand, this oscillation between geographic markers and abstract forms embodies Siti’s own lived experience, at once embedded in the landscape of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region but also alienated from it by his identity as a Kurd and a leftist in Ba’athist Iraq. Even his choice of towers typifies this complex identity in twentieth century Iraq. The minaret of Samarra was often used as a nationalist symbol and the mountains were and continue to be a symbol of Kurdish identity.
The materials Siti chooses also situate his towers in conflict between hopefulness and despair, between good and evil, between enlightenment and folly. Returning to his 2023 acrylic composition “Build, Unbuild, Rebuild” of the Malwiya minaret, Siti paints it half black and half light grey as if in a struggle between light and dark. He is fascinated by the idea that this tower is all that is left of a vast city, now a pockmarked ruin. In this way, it is both a symbol of endurance against the odds but also of the folly of man’s desire for power. His continual reworking of the minaret recalls Ibn Khaldun’s famous musings on the cycle of construction and destruction in societies: “destruction is much easier than construction, because destruction is a return to the origin, which is nonexistence.”
While destruction might be the easiest path according to Ibn Khaldun, Siti does not allow for total annihilation. In all of his towers, he leaves the possibility of climbing them, of hope. One of his sculptural towers in this exhibition is made of ladders. In mid-twentieth century Iraq, artists often featured ladders in their work as symbols of rural architecture, where ladders were used to reach the roof where people slept to escape the heat. Siti’s sculpture abstracts this nationalist symbol into a universal. The delicate conglomeration of ladders suggests the possibility and precarity of climbing. In Siti’s sculpture, the ladders together form the base and body of the mountain or of the tower. He titles it Collective Dream and through its form he emphasizes the importance of collectivity for climbing. One cannot climb Siti’s mountain alone.
As in a dream, the possibility of reaching the top in any of his artworks is elusive. It is rather the building up, the gathering of elements that dominates the composition rather than the verticality. His sculptural works are fragile both in their choice of materials and their construction. In his wood and wire sculpture on display in this exhibition, the wood chips show signs of splintering, and they sit precariously on top of one another at odd angles. In his 2015 sculpture The Tower, commissioned for Art Istanbul International, the empty spaces between the plywood frame play a central role in the tower’s structure. The delicate wooden beams frame the landscape and the ephemeral blue sky becomes part of the artwork.
Siti often says that climbing mountains is important for providing a new perspective and even enlightenment to the climber. Siti’s return to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in 2019 was a form of ascent for the artist. From this fresh vantage point, he took on a new medium, one more rooted in realism and a direct representation of the landscape, this being film. The year he returned to Iraq for his social projects he made two films, The Troubled Bear and the Palace and To The Unknown Architect, each a dialogue with his two icons, the mountains and theMalwiya minaret.
The cyclical nature of Siti’s practice brings the constant hope of renewal. No matter what landscape or context he finds himself in, for Siti, there is always metal, wood, clay or dust from which to build a tower or a mountain.
Exhibition essay from Meem Gallery
Image: Walid Siti. Installation view of Fragile Construct at Meem Gallery, Dubai, 2023. Image courtesy of Meem Gallery