Primary research - Interview with artist Ismail Khayat

Posted on by Ben Hodson

In interviewing artists who demonstrated an intention to bring about positive change, I have grown in my understanding and the thought process behind this discussion.  These have ranged from short conversations or questions from talks to full audio and video recorded interviews.  On a recent trip to northern Iraq I connected with a group of artists and photographers.   These (primarily Kurdish) people faced the brunt of the horrendous crimes perpetrated by Saddam Hussain.  Their work gives a balance to the Iraqi voices we are shown via our media; they do not directly engage themselves in the debate over the war.  They simply strive for peace and remind us of the 250,000+ innocent people that have been killed and the fact that the Kurds are the world's largest ethnic group without a country.  At the centre of this collective is an artist: Ismail Khayat.  The former minister of Art & Culture for Kurdistan, often dubbed as the “Grandfather of Kurdish art” is responsible for most of the art projects in the north of Iraq.  He was born in Khanaken, Kurdistan in 1944, and has been a member of the Iraqi Artist Association since 1965 and the Iraqi Artist Syndicate since 1970.  He currently lives in Sulaymaniyah, which has again become the cultural centre for Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and even Iran & Armenia. The city was founded by Prince Ibrahim Pasha Baban in 1784 as “a place where Kurdish culture could flourish,” (Current Kurdish Cultural Minister Falakaddin Kakeyi 07).   Interviewing Ismail (Fig. 6) about his work revealed a number of incredible stories.  One of these stories has become a centre piece for my research and is a case study for this essay.  


Starting in 1994, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PDK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) started fighting one another after disputes erupted over the control of Southern Kurdistan in Iraq.  After 3-4 years of fighting, this civil war had caused a lot of damage and numerous lives had been lost.  Ismail had slowly been gaining support for his work which directly addresses the need for peace in the region.  This culminated in a painted mountainside (Fig. 7 & 8) in the centre of one of the worst areas for the bloodshed.  Using his figurative and colourful style he painted rocks, trees, bullets, shells and other found objects.  He inscribed the words “Peace for Kurdistan” in Kurdish, Arabic and English amongst other peace symbols and words.  This included the statement that “this place is not for fighting, it is for picnics!” (Ismail Khayat 09). The artist claimed that this act was one of the main contributing facts to the peace process between these two political parties.  As a former political minister for the region, this statement was unlikely to be just be hype or an over optimistic self-appraisal.  However, I made efforts to find evidence to back up his claims. In speaking to a number of other Kurdish people, including artists and other community leaders; they all relayed the incredible impact that this dramatic installation caused.  The act of painting the mountain could almost be seen as a performance piece, we joked about the fact no-one made a documentary about it.    


The mountainside soon became a safer area. Ismail invited the leaders and members of these two parties to the site.  He got the leaders of both the PUK and the PDK to take part in visual acts of peace.  He got them to bury stones marked with the Kurdish words for fighting, pain, death and anger.  This event appears to be widely regarded as one of the main turning points in the dialogue between these two opposing parties.  The peace talks had already started before this event; however, it is clear that no deals or decisions had been made.  Conversations with other Kurdish individuals, showed how well Ismail is known in the region.  The stories of his painted mountain appeared to be well known and most were of the opinion that he had caused a significant change in the nation's history.  On asking another Kurdish artist if the peace process would have happened without this creative act he replied, “Without Khayat's help I wonder if we would have ever seen an end to the bloodshed, this event is very important to Kurdish history.” (Soran Hamad 09)   


This incredible story had gained Ismail invitations to the Middle East institute in Washington DC, to do talks on “How Art Can be used to Bring Peace” and a special seminar on “Civil Life in Iraqi Kurdistan” in 2001.  On asking Ismail if art can change policy and public opinion, he responded in a surprised way.  He appeared to be surprised that the question was even worth asking.  “Of course art can change things... artists have a responsibility to try and make the world a better place.” (Ismail Khayat 09)