Exiled From Iraq, Artist Walid Siti Explores the Past, Present, and Future of the Middle East

In modern history, there’s hardly been a more salient moment than this one for an artist to explore the cultural identities and power structures of Middle Eastern societies. And it’s hard to imagine an artist more uniquely qualified for the job than Walid Siti, a painter and sculptor who has lived in exile from his native Kurdish Iraq since he was a young man.

Siti works with the symbolism of ancient architectural structures and geographic forms, raising questions about old traditions, modern developments, and humans’ unquenchable thirst for power. Many structures and forms are easily recognizable in Siti’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures: pyramids, ziggurats, and mountains, to name a few. There’s the namesake boulder in The Lonely Rock (2014) and the geometric, industrial  structure of Occupational Hazard (2014). And then there’s the cluster of tiny, delicate ladders in Ladders Series 2 (2012), a form that recurs in Siti’s work. 

All of these, and and especially the ladder, suggest vertical mobility, the sense of reaching higher and higher. For Siti, this force, ever upward-moving, symbolizes the endless striving for power in the Middle East, the dainty structures and building blocks themselves representing the hastily built systems that have created an uncertain future for the people of Middle Eastern societies.

Siti should know—he was born there, into a troubled political landscape in which fundamental decisions in his life were made for him. Walid studied art in Europe in the 1980s, as persecution of Iraqi Kurds radically increased, before seeking political asylum in London. “My life is affected by politics and war, whether I am involved in them or not,” he has said. “My work has always been haunted by these themes—by choice or by circumstance.” Knowing the artist’s personal history adds meaning and dimension to the works he creates. But with or without such biographical details, Siti’s works stand on their own—his shadowy paintings and rickety sculptures are poignant explorations of the intersection between Iraq’s rich cultural history, its troubled present, and a future that’s yet to be seen.

Bridget Gleeson

Discover more artists at Galeri Zilberman.