The art of earning a living in Slemani

By Darya Ibrahim

Kurdish Canadian artist regrets that talented young artists are dissuaded by economic hardships from pursuing a career in the arts, and must instead take up menial jobs to earn a living.

On first inspection you would be forgiven for thinking that Kurdish artist Shilan Jabar takes her inspiration from the African continent. But she argues that that is not strictly correct.

“Yes the faces are dark and the
faces tend to have big eyes and
lips, which are common in Africa,
but it is the dark colors of nature
that inspire me, the mud, the tree
bark. Do you see what I mean?”
she asks.

Jabar, 30, originally hails from the
Malkandy district of Slemani, but
now lives in Canada with her
musician husband and their two
children. Her work has been
exhibited extensively throughout
the Kurdish region. Her first solo
exhibition was at the tender age
of 18. In recent years, she has also exhibited her work in Syria and Canada.

“You know, I sold my most expensive piece in Syria, at a one-day exhibition,” she recalls. “It was nice that someone liked my work enough to pay a high price, but I don't paint for the money, I paint for myself, that other people like my work is a bonus.”

Jabar has studied both in Canada and Slemani, and plans to study for her masters next year. She insists, however, that while she has studied art, her technique comes more from her soul than what they taught her in art school.

“Actually my art is an expression of my soul, my inside feeling; all my art work is really a connection between me and the outer world, outside reflection comes inside to me,” she said.

She goes on to say that when she looks back at her paintings, it is like remembering all the dreams that she has had. Jabar said that she is often the only Kurdish artist exhibiting at events in Canada and that although her art is well received, most Canadians also mistake her art for being African.

“There are many people in Canada who love my paintings because they think my art is talking about African people; but my art doesn’t talk about African people,” she maintains. “It is about humans, the color of the body is the color of nature, the color of mud, of trees; when you see those colors coming back to the body, you see human skin. It seems bright color; some of them are dark, but I’m not talking about African people, I'm dissolving my figures with the color of nature.”

But it is not just the use of color that may mislead viewers of her work. It is the facial features too, and those Jabar states come from her childhood.

“The style you see, with the really big mouth and eyes, it comes from my childhood, when I was a child, I liked those kinds of beautiful mouths and bright eyes, if you look at Kurdish children, they have big eyes and mouths, and I mixed them in my mind and they appear in my art,” she adds.

Jabar said that no one artist in particular influences her; rather that she draws inspiration from her surroundings and her travels to different countries. If any, her greatest influences, she says, come from her father and other artists from Slemani, such as Chiman Ismael, Azad Shawqi, and Saman Karim. And she does concede some influence from Western artists, such as Van Gogh. With a smile, she admits that sometimes she suffers “painter’s block” and she just can't paint anything. But then, there are times when she has to grab some paper to jot down her ideas. When asked if she thinks that the art scene in the region has changed in the six years she has been away, it is the first time she doesn't smile and she answers somberly.

“When I was here there was a great rivalry among students and artists we spurred each other on,” she says. “It saddens me that most of them have had to take other jobs due to a lack of support and opportunity for artists from the government.”

She regrets that artists in Kurdistan are dissuaded by economic conditions to work for the sake of art itself, but must work menial jobs to earn a living.

“It is hard to be a painter in Kurdistan,” she says. “No one helps you open an exhibition. Not your family, not the Ministry of Culture, no one. The artists here are really discouraged. And it’s tragic, because some of them are very good.”

Printed with permission. From Soma