Jala Wahid Conflagration

Jala Wahid, Conflagration, installation view, John Hansard Gallery, 2023. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Reece Straw

This autumn, John Hansard Gallery is delighted to present Conflagration by artist Jala Wahid.

Working with sculpture, film, sound, writing and installation, Jala Wahid makes work that touches on urgent issues in relation to identity, nationhood, diasporic living in the UK, intergenerational legacies and cultural traditions. Her work articulates the global and interregional politics that shape Kurdish identity and considers how politics and poetic expression interweave. She is interested in the emotive potential of archives, music, literature, dance, theatre and fashion to reveal the poetics and performativity of politics.

Conflagration presents a new body of work exploring the relationship between Britain and Kurdistan, through the lens of oil. Co-commissioned and originally exhibited by Baltic (Gateshead) and Tramway (Glasgow), Conflagration represents Wahid’s first institutional solo presentation and tour. For John Hansard Gallery, this new body of work will also be accompanied by additional existing works. The new body of work comprises three main elements and approaches oil as the symbolic material through which nationalism, statelessness, colonialism and Kurdish identity are analysed. It is grounded in the discovery of the Baba Gurgur oil well, following a time during which Britain and France politically occupied Mesopotamia, culminating in the formation of new nation states in the region’s oil resources.

Within the exhibition, Wahid invites us to step into a landscape conceived as an inferno. The light sculpture, Sick Pink Sun (03:00 14.10.1927 – ), commemorates the precise moment the first well in the Baba Gurgur field was struck and points to an unknowable future in the wake of the oil industry. Until 1948, Baba Gurgur was considered the largest oil field in the world. It is situated in the Kirkuk province, a region disputed between Federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. This history and current politics are explored through Naphtha Maqam, a sound work created from archival material found in the National Archives and the British Petroleum archives. Collaborating with sound producer Owen Pratt and Amal Saeed Kurda, a well-known contemporary Kurdish singer/composer, Wahid has produced a funereal maqam (melodically Kurdish but lyrically English), which includes elements such as Wahid’s own voice alongside recordings of oil drilling rigs.

The central sculpture represents the Salvia spinosa flower, which is endemic to the region. Wahid presents it as the embodiment of the Baba Gurgur gusher. It exists in abundance and is the only species of flora to be specifically described as growing on shale rocks in-between oil wells at Baba Gurgur. A new-to-science species of the Salvia plant was recently discovered in Kurdistan. The parallel discovery of oil, flora and identity is important for Wahid. She asks, what makes a discovery symbolic, what are its implications, and at what or whose expense?

Exhibited alongside the new commissioned works are three existing works, Metaphysical Reunification (2023), The Profitless Gift (2021) and Haven! (2021). Using text and images from national archives and museological artefacts, these works delve deep into history and interrogate ideas around received histories, Western narratives, colonial looting and the impact of conflict. Spanning multiple histories, centuries and empires, the works delicately balance the poetic with the political.

Jala Wahid: Conflagration has been co-commissioned by Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and Tramway. 

Conflagration is presented in partnership with Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Tramway, Glasgow, Niru Ratnam Gallery and Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna.

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