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apexart :: Un-working the Icon: Kurdish "Warrior-Divas" :: Shawna Vesco and Anne Wheeler
apexart - berlin
Un-Working the Icon: Kurdish "Warrior-Divas"
organized by
Shawna Vesco and Anne Wheeler

On view:
February 4 - March 4, 2017
Gallery Mario Kreuzberg, Adalbertstraße 4D
Berlin, Germany
Tuesday to Saturday, 3-7 pm

Opening Reception:
Saturday, February 4, 7 pm

Featuring work by:
Bryndís Björnsdóttir
Nilbar Güreş
Nadine Hattom
Floris Parlevliet
Greta Rusttt
Beri Shalmashi

A Franchise Exhibition Program exhibition.

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Still from Het Front, 2016
Screenplay by Beri Shalmashi; directed by Floris Parlevliet

brochure pdf
exhibition checklist pdf
press release pdf
images page
original proposal pdf
Art Berlin review

February 4, 2017, 8:30 pm
Act of Representation
Opening night performance by Bryndís Björnsdóttir.
Ongoing, February 4 - March 4, 2017
Dear Reader
This month-long intervention by Greta Rusttt Collective investigates books' mediation with the public in places such as libraries, bookstores, or flea markets.
Until recently, the figure of the veiled woman has been the primary iconic marker of Middle Eastern womanhood in the social and cultural imaginary of the west. Rooted in colonial paintings, literary works, travelogues, and photographs, this icon has gained contemporary currency as a site where the mythological clash of civilizations is made visible. Discourses and headlines about the terror of extreme Islamist movements have crystallized in and been projected onto this veiled female body. Symbolically operating as an object of confinement and exclusion, the icon of the covered woman has become an essential and eternal object of fascination, yet it reveals little about real women, their lived experiences, or the complexities of their being and becoming.

Now, with the rise of all-female factions of Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, global media sources are crafting an alternative yet similarly problematic icon: that of the Kurdish “warrior-diva.” Dressed in masculine combat gear, a gun slung over her shoulder, the defiant look on this woman-fighter’s face is often softened by her makeup, nail polish, and ubiquitous flowered scarf. The emblem of a vague eastern feminism, she exudes all the appropriate markers of empowerment and desirability, and appears only mildly threatening.

Though such images are neither inherently truthful nor falsified accounts of these women, the repetition of these figures across western news sources has the cumulative effect of presenting “an” iconic Kurdish woman fighter. When a very specific aestheticization like this trends with viral ferocity, the result is inevitably a questionable and empty object of cultural knowledge that fails to transmit any information.

Rather than ethically engaging with difference or otherness, icons operate by romanticizing and orientalizing alterity in order to produce easily readable and digestible eye-candy – usually for purposes related to propaganda or capitalism. Both the veiled woman and the warrior-diva function as mechanisms through which the west attempts to minimize and domesticate the east, thus asserting its own mythologized power and superiority. The icons open disturbingly reductive and ill-informed conversations about people’s lived realities, particularly around the intersecting issues of gender, feminism, warfare, and global politics. The presence of the warrior-diva icon discourages western audiences from learning about the historical and political contexts that have shaped global contemporary Kurdish issues, the ideological and political splits within the larger Kurdish community itself, Kurdish daily life in the diaspora, and women’s rights and movements within the emergent Kurdistan. Rather than granting visibility, the project of iconization ultimately conceals and veils.

Over the last twenty years, the icon of the veiled woman has been rendered inert through a variety of emergent expressive forms. In the visual arts, Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, and others have troubled the occidental gaze and its products, while simultaneously deconstructing the very concepts of cultural identity and representation. This exhibition gathers artists who similarly un-work the iconicity of the warrior-diva to lay bare the crisis of representation at its heart.

The work of filmmaker Beri Shalmashi explores the space where the personal meets the political, validating the contingency of the “here and now” over the hollow, ahistorical, and impersonal story of an icon. Inspired by her Iranian-Kurdish roots and her mother’s generation of women who fought against Khomeini and Hussein, Shalmashi has thoughtfully and carefully produced creative-critical work on women peshmerga. Her short film Shouted From the Rooftops, 2016, pursues a romance that defies the romanticization of female fighters. At its heart are the lovers Sherin, who leaves to fight IS, and Ferhat, who awaits her return. Sherin herself is barely visible in the film, yet is continually present to the viewer, who witnesses her absence in the face, body, and bearing of her anguished lover. Sweeping shots of the city rubble alternate with close-ups of Ferhat to reveal the lovers as a metonym for the larger community: Ferhat’s personal experience of loss is but one story among countless and unknowable others.

The film Het Front (Frontline), 2016, directed by Floris Parlevliet with a screenplay written by Beri Shalmashi, directly, figuratively, and literally confronts the passage during peshmerga training that women make from roles confined to the domestic or private sphere to roles as political actors. The majority of the film takes place in dim, intimate interiors – where emotional conflict, passionate love, friendship, and conversation reside – but in the final moments, this interiority is broken as natural light floods the screen and the film’s protagonist, Ceylan, stands before an expansive mountain range in Kurdistan. The central tension of the film, Ceylan’s competing desires to stay and to leave, finds no resolution: her face turned away from the camera, viewers know not how she feels, only that she is leaving for the frontline.

Through photography, film, painting, and sculpture, Nilbar Güreş un-works traditional and problematic modalities of being and belonging by deterritorializing and recoding political and conceptual spaces. In so doing, her work directly and deliberately confronts pressing issues related to marginalization, patriarchy, invisibility, agency, and the complexities of female intimacies and identities. This exhibition includes the film Kimlik (Identity), 2013, shot in the Kurdish-Alevi village of Güreş’s father’s origin. The work appeals to ending the bloodshed of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, but more pointedly highlights women’s refusal to accept a role of invisibility in Turkish social spheres, despite the difficulty of this stance. In a graceful and simple act of protest that gains currency in its cyclic repetition, the anonymous woman featured in this film sheds fabrics that cover her body, and rises to pursue her own path, demonstrating the agency that women can have in their own emancipation.

Nadine Hattom, whose work is indelibly shaped by her experience of growing up among diverse places and cultures, explores and celebrates cultural identity as a collection of imbricated elements. Her project Maysaa and Fetheya departs from figural representations of women to explore other transmissions of identity. Maysaa and Fetheya considers ordinary objects and daily life as crucial markers of our essential selves and how we relate to one another. In photographs of the possessions that two women refugees carried with them from Syria to Jordan, these everyday objects – such as a hairdryer and toothpaste, or jars of homemade olives, pickles, and vine leaves – become portraits of each woman, reflecting, respectively, Maysaa’s aspirations for the future, and Fetheya’s desire to preserve her culture. For her other project, Shadows, Hattom counters the gaze of western media by digitally removing the figures of American soldiers that overwhelm Internet stock photographs of the Iraqi landscape, leaving only their shadows in the images. With the icon un-worked, Hattom mobilizes empathy by allowing the viewer to imagine and even inhabit the perspective of the absent figure. This practice of seeing the world through others’ eyes opens a traditionally and dominantly masculine warscape not only to women, but to other, less immediate and less mediated micronarratives.

Working through a multivalenced performance called Mountain Woman, Bryndís Björnsdóttir explores the symbolism and reverberations of the Mountain Woman figure who has her origins in both Kurdish and Icelandic cultural imaginaries. Every incarnation of Björnsdóttir’s performance morphs and expands, touching on themes related to the colonization of female bodies, the longing for motherland, and the magic of statelessness.

The location of the exhibition, the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, is the ideal place to open a dialogue about the political, social, and epistemological stakes of individual and community identity. Kreuzberg is home to large Turkish and Kurdish populations (the largest Kurdish population in diaspora), and has often been the stage on which protests, conflicts, partnerships, and celebrations surrounding issues of identity have played out. This exhibition at Gallery Mario Kreuzberg is simply one space among others (like Café Kotti, Kotti.fm radio, or Mittelpunktbibliothek), where these conversations, detours, and interventions take place daily and in solidarity.

Shawna Vesco and Anne Wheeler © 2017

Special thanks to Manuela Morales Délano of Gallery Mario Kreuzberg for her unsurpassed kindness and enthusiasm in this collaboration, and to Daniela Hermosilla and Micol Favini of collective Greta Rusttt for extending the Dear Reader project to us and the Kotti community. Thanks also to Michael Chico, Michael Fieni, Tine Fischer-Hernandez, Sabrina Franz, Lucia Gomez, Michelle Ordieres, Gabrielle Veyssiere, and Marcel Wrzesinski for their support.

Shawna Vesco is a San Francisco-based writer and cultural theorist. She received her Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her current book project, Disaster-Writing: Literature, Community, and Technology in the 20th and 21st Centuries, explores the arts and humanities as ethical technologies that un-work late capitalism, identity politics, “Silicon Valley” (the metonym for “the Tech Industry”), and other pockets of current global socio-political anxiety. Some of her work can be found in Boundary2, Thresholds, Interim: Poetry & Poetics, and at disasterwriting.org.

Anne Wheeler is a New York-based artist, writer, curator, and historian specializing in Minimal, Postminimal and Conceptual Art. She received her BA in English and the Practice of Art from the University of California, Berkeley, and is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. Anne joined the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2010 at the founding of the Museum’s Panza Collection Initiative, and has recently served as assistant curator for the major international loan exhibitions On Kawara – Silence (2015) and Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better (2016).

apexart’s programs are supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Buhl Foundation, the Degenstein Foundation, Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Greenwich Collection Ltd., Affirmation Arts Fund, the Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, the Fifth Floor Foundation, and with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

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