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SANANDAJ, Iran — In the far west of Iran, in a small region called “Kordestan” — a chunk of land clinging to the Zagros mountain range and named after the ethnic Kurds who inhabit this and much of the surrounding area — is the city of Sanandaj (formerly Senna), the administrative center of the region. There, in a quiet suburb that once housed mansions and pleasure gardens, stands a blue-green statue of a woman. Sculpted in bronze, she stands perhaps eight feet high. She wears an ornate, beaded headpiece, and a chunky necklace. Her simple dress is overlaid with a richly brocaded coat. She twitches the heavy material out of her way with one hand, the other clasping a book to her breast. Her eyes are cast down and slightly to the side, as if in modesty — or, rather, as if walking deep in thought. She seems to step forward, serenely, with a small smile. “Mastoureh Ardalan,” reads the small accompanying plaque. “Woman of Letters, Rhetorician, Poetess, Historian.” Mastoureh lived from 1805–1847. Her likeness was cast by Hadi Ziaoddinni.
On the day I visit Mastoureh, Ziaoddinni, as on most days, is only a few hundred meters away, tucked into a small wing of a former governor’s residence at the top of the park. As chance (or otherwise) would have it, Mastoureh’s husband, Khasraw Khani Ardalan, was the governor of the vassal state centered on the city of Sanandaj in the early 19th century. Ziaoddinni, a painstaking visual chronicler of Kurdish life and culture, now labors in the same building that the lady wordsmith (reputed to be the first female historian in the Middle East) likely wrote her celebrated histories and poems, in a mixture of Howrami Kurdish and Persian. Ziaoddinni’s choice of subject matter is not coincidental.
In Iran, Kurds make up around 10% of the 80.8 million-strong population, and (like other minority groups) have been consistently denied language rights. Executions of Kurdish prisoners are disturbingly commonplace, and a military campaign has sought to brutally exterminate the PKK-affiliated guerrilla group Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which seeks to replace Iran’s theocracy with democratic federalism; despite a 2011 ceasefire, clashes continue. Kurdish anger against cultural repression and discrimination — in the Shi’a-majority Persian state the Sunni Kurds are doubly disadvantaged by their ethnicity and their religion — occasionally boils over, as in the violent protests that erupted following the suspicious death of an Iranian Kurdish woman earlier this year.
Ziaoddinni’s work is, in many ways, a response to this ongoing repression. “It’s our cultural heritage and should be introduced to everyone, especially Kurdish people,” he tells me when I meet him — a droopy-eyed, mustachioed, softly-spoke man, with silver streaks in his brown hair and white plaster speckles on his brown Kurdish pants — in his cluttered studio. Born in Sanandaj in 1956 and trained at the Fine Arts faculty of Tehran University in the 1970s, Ziaoddinni nurtures an unwavering commitment to the Kurdish cause by making the trials and triumphs of his people visible and built into the fabric of his city.
I, certainly, had never previously heard of Mastoureh, and was fascinated by the story of the female philosopher-historiographer, forced to flee to Iraq after the Qajar advance that followed her husband’s death. But Sanandaj is peppered with figures such as hers: expressive, charismatic faces peering out of metal, plaster, and stone, suggesting hidden worlds, hidden histories. Ziaoddinni’s characters, illustrating a fascinating Kurdish story — dynamic, diverse, and extremely long — have taken over the town, cropping up in squares and traffic circles, on a quiet bend in a mountain road or surrounded by snarling Iranian-made Peugeots in the center of the city.
Walkers preparing to climb Abidar, a mountain set amongst the golden hills that encircle Sanandaj, will pass a monumental bust of Mohamed Oraz, an Iranian Kurdish mountain climber who conquered Mount Everest without using oxygen, before being felled by an avalanche in the Karakorum in 2003. Kaveh the Blacksmith, a mythic figure who appeared in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (the national epic of the Persian kings) and is beloved by Kurds for his rebellion against a murderous tyrant, defiantly raises his leather apron aloft in another, otherwise nondescript, swathe of urban sprawl. In the city’s central Azadi (“Freedom”) Square, a Ziaoddinni sculpture illustrates the square’s name: a man kneels, arms and head thrown back, rib-cage cracking open towards the sky, in a posture of ecstatic surrender.
Small reproductions appear everywhere: on posters in language schools, as downsized models in shops; the infamous “Saladin” (Kurdish Salah ad-Din, sultan of Egypt and Syria) peers out of the recesses of a museum, a woman in typical Kurdish headgear gazes from the wall of a restaurant. Ziaoddinni’s public works are distinctive although his style is hardly homogenous, veering as it does from the almost cubist, explosive angles of “Freedom,” to Giacometti-esque silhouettes, to the realist sagacity of the historical figures. Each of the latter is lively, individual; attention is paid to subtle suggestions of personality: the set of a jaw, a quizzical brow, the curve of a lip.
As we pass a demure Ziaoddinni sculpture of the classical, archetypal water bearer on the slopes of Abidar, my companion, a young Sanandaj mother, proudly tells me that the ubiquitous statues “turn the city into a symbol, somehow.” A symbol signifying Kurdish ingenuity, resilience, and refinement is no small feat in a country that has consistently pursued stringent assimilationist policies. Ziaoddinni’s work is, in any case, an anomaly in Iran’s anodyne public-art landscape of martyr murals, monumental ayatollahs, and surreal bucolic scenes. To Ziaoddinni’s mind, such “indifferent art” emerges because of government oversight. “I have no connection with the government and they never have any influence over me or my work,” he tells me.
The city council — the commissioner of these public works — gives Ziaoddinni a theme to freely work with — the name of the square (“Freedom”), for example. His vision for the space and for the statue is entirely independently realized, he says, adding, “If I was compelled, I would never do these works.” He emphasizes that though the public works are reimbursed, he would always choose inspiration over money, gesturing to the smaller works crowding his studio — craggy, heavy-lidded faces of calligraphers, warlords, writers, statesmen — as proof. Such pieces, some of which are housed in the “Famous Kurds” wing of a local historical house (a collection which Ziaoddinni hopes to expand into a museum proper), seldom receive any compensation, despite their apparent retail value of 30 million tomans ($US 10,000) each.
The government, Ziaoddinni says, doesn’t encourage this work — hence the lack of funding — but nor has anyone actively prevented him from doing it. Government officials simply “prefer not to let this art to grow,” he says. My Instagram post of Azadi square — Ziaoddinni’s kneeling man dramatically silhouetted against the sunset — inspired a comment that suggests an embattled mentality: “freedom cry of Kurdistan, government of iran tried destroy this statue but ppl don’t let anyone touch that,” wrote @sugar_sah, followed by a perky peace sign emoji. My Kurdish friends grumble that even Mastoureh has been treated with disrespect, tucked away into a quiet corner of the city where her admirers are few.
Ziaoddinni betrays little of this anger, although he acknowledges that his art is a reflection of politics. “No one escapes from the environment he lives in, so it influences his feelings and thinking, especially if he feels responsible for his city or culture,” he tells me. “All my works … are a reflection of my environment: my happiness, my hardships, my social life, my history.” This social consciousness is pan-Kurdish, unlimited by national borders. In pride of place in his studio is an understated bronze: a young woman in overalls and a jacket, hair pulled nonchalantly back into a low bun, resting on the back of a reclining lion. The piece is dedicated to the female Kurdish fighters killed in the struggle to liberate the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane earlier this year.
In the confines of his studio, Ziaoddinni — weather-beaten, distinguished, grave — takes on the aspect of one of his own statues. His work-chair is an office swivel-throne covered in plastic. Two friendly female assistants bustle around, offering tea, chocolates, and a portfolio of Ziaoddinni’s paintings (dark impressionist oils depicting pastoral scenes of Kurdish village life, by turns poignant and sinister). From where we sip, we are confronted with the image of another sculpture that colonizes one wall. The piece, located in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil, is a harrowing memorial of Saddam Hossein’s genocidal al-Anfal campaign against ethnic Kurds, which resulted in over 100,000 deaths.
The statue, a 60-foot column, is an elaborate, chaotic illustration of the dead and dying. Inspired by the live burials carried out by Saddam’s troops, the work’s cluttered, claustrophobic choreography, is reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica.” The Erbil memorial’s entire conception — built into a grave-like pit and accessed through a dismal subterranean tunnel — is designed to inspire radical empathy in visitors, to make them feel the weight of this particular history. The sudden shift from victim’s perspective (as one approaches the work, underground) to viewer (as one reaches the column) should inspire catharsis. “You know freedom better once you have experienced the worst,” Ziaoddinni explains.
Despite Kurdish optimism regarding the current government headed by Hassan Rouhani, Ziaoddinni insists that the moves made by “political game-players” in Tehran do little to alter Kordestan’s status quo, or to make his work any easier. Instead, he derives his energy from his constituents. “I have great supporters, who are my people,” he says simply, without a trace of arrogance. “They love me and so I feel strong. My art is the people’s speech.” And he desperately hopes for that speech to reach more ears. As I leave, he grasps my hand tightly. “We live enclosed in a small circle,” he says, urgent, serious. “If you get to know us and our culture, you make this circle bigger.”