Hiwa K: Art and Activism

Jon White ’19

Art Correspondent

The viewing room for Hiwa K’s This Lemon Tastes of Apple. Photo by David Ramsey, courtesy of Van Every/Smith Galleries.

I was both underprepared and undeserving when a friend asked me last minute to fill her shift in the student performance of the Kurdish-Iraqi artist Hiwa K’s original work, Cooking with Mama, which took place in a pop-up kitchen-studio on the dark side of Commons two Wednesdays ago.

The piece is straightforward in its concept but complex in the details and the improvisation of its performance. As Hiwa did in the video currently displayed in the Van Every/Smith Galleries, Huseyin Altinisik ’20 called his relatives living in Turkey via Skype to learn how to make a traditional Turkish meal. Cooking alongside us, Huseyin’s family made the same dish for their evening meal, demonstrating the process while evaluating the quality of our cooking and the edibility of our burnt eggplant. The meal was ready fifteen minutes late and not exactly true to the recipe, but it was one of the richest and most delicious meals I had eaten in months, and I gained a new appreciation for the communal power of cooking and the cultural roots many students work to maintain while at Davidson.

Though it’s easiest to describe Cooking with Mama as a performance piece, Hiwa K would later explain over lunch with students that he doesn’t exactly think of the work as a performance, and perhaps not even as art. “It’s just something that immigrants do,” he said, and the work is simply an exposition of refugees’ regular practice of transnational communication and yearning for the warm familial ties and tastes of home. Hiwa revealed that during a particularly unproductive time in his studies at an art academy in Berlin, his job of cooking for the academy became his creative outlet, resulting in the ongoing series which has fed crowds at multiple sites, including hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Much of the work in the gallery shares this ambiguity between the creation of art and the daily drama of life. By integrating the experience of art and social action, Hiwa K does not mean to fuse the two—to pretend that art is life and vice versa—but rather to demonstrate that engaging politics and coping with conflict is done more potently (and when done well, also more vulnerably) through creative interventions. In the piece —Moon Calendar, Hiwa talks to the camera about process and how to understand the work itself, but there is no ironic double twist here. Hiwa shows his hand as an artist, inviting the viewer to contemplate the usefulness of art in our global, violent, divided political atmosphere right alongside him, creating a relationship between artist and viewer in which meaning is ultimately collaborative.

The Bell Project, a video piece originally exhibited at the Venice Biennale, is comprised of two projections that meet in one corner of the gallery. On the left-hand projection, Iraqi men collect bullet casings, exploded shells, and other scrap weaponry and melt them down into solid bars in a harsh and rudimentary workshop. On the right, the bars appear again, this time being melted down and recast in a foundry in Italy where master bell makers convert the scrap metal into a massive and ornate (but nonfunctional) bell. The large scale and the receding perspective add to the disorientation of multiple languages, English subtitles, and a soundscape of clanging metal. At one point, an Iraqi man lists the types of bombs that were dropped and their country of origin as he sorts through their remains. 

Hiwa meets these traumatic realities with a characteristic intensity, but also with kindness and humor. Later, Hiwa told the story of taking a homeless man out to breakfast and learning that he was a veteran of the Iraq war. Hiwa quipped, “You bombed my country, now what do you want for breakfast?”

The themes of art and activism, resiliency and reform, find their greatest articulation in the thirteen-minute video piece This Lemon Tastes of Apple. In it, Hiwa and his friend Daroon Othman march in a protest in Hiwa’s hometown as they perform a duet on guitar and harmonica, amplifying their music through megaphones. The intervention feels at once like a battle cry rallying the crowd forward and an expression of anguish and hopelessness for the misery of their condition. Such anxieties are realized when the crowd suddenly starts rushing in the opposite direction, one cluster of men carrying a wounded protestor. In the face of such violence, the intrigue of theoretical questions disintegrates, and the artists are forced to decidewhether or how to continue performing.

The capacity for art to “make a difference” is an active question in Hiwa K’s mind, and these days he says he’s cynical. He’s not making art right now (in his words, “You don’t hammer the iron when it’s cold”), and he says his Marxist tendencies have left him—he’s lost his interest in fighting. He’s still on the battlefield, but he sees his role, at this stage in his life, as that of the field medic. We need the medics as much as we need the soldiers, he would explain, yet that work isn’t as highly valued. It’s feminized, it’s maintenance, and it doesn’t fit as well into our calls to action.

There’s something about Hiwa K’s fluid transformation of culture into creativity into form that still confounds me. More than just responding to history and culture, Hiwa’s art seems to engage the things that people are doing in the world as an essential medium. I aspire to create art that engages human experience as specifically and as improvisationally as his does. At this moment, I’m not feeling the cynicism that Hiwa K feels, but I also haven’t lived the years he’s lived. I hope my Marxist days are still ahead of me, so to speak.

Jon White ’19 is an Anthropology major from Durham, NC. He can be reached for comment at jowhite@davidson.edu.

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