KOYA, Iraqi Kurdistan — The eastern approach to the Kurdish town of Koya descends down a narrow two-lane highway that carves through a valley of endless sideways slices of brown and ochre, pocked with stubborn brush and spindly oaks. On the outskirts of town sits an imposing, beige brick fortress that resembles a military base or prison. Built by the Soviet Union for Saddam Hussein in 1977, it is an unusual site for an art installation. But Shorsh Ahi’s latest work came about through unusual — and unusually tragic — circumstances.
The fort was turned over to the dominant local political party after the establishment of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in 1991. Two years later it was gifted to a newly arrived community of exiles, the persecuted Rhojelat Kurds of northwestern Iran. For 25 years, hundreds of stateless families have lived a kilometer from the fort, in the Azadi camp. The fort is the social hub of the camp community, housing its political party alongside its library and the meeting rooms used by its youth and women’s clubs. The morning of September 8, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched seven mid-range, surface-to-surface missiles at the Koya fortress. They were targeting a political meeting but, ultimately, destroyed most of the apolitical buildings, including the library. Sixteen people died, and more than 40 were injured, including several children. Less than 24 hours later, with smoke still rising from a blast crater studded with rubble, Ahi began his latest installation.
Ahi studied visual arts at the University of Tehran. Although he specialized in sculpture, he has completed several major murals in the city, inspired by the murals of David Alfaro Siqueiros. Today, the majority of his income comes from commissions for his decorative wood sculptures. However, his preferred medium is plastic, which he primarily employs to depict haunting, anguished faces representing Kurds murdered in events like the genocidal Anfal campaign spearheaded by Hussein’s cousin, “Chemical Ali.” When we asked if he believes the artist has a social obligation, he responds, “I’m so sensitive to violence that I can’t even watch a chicken be beheaded — my work addresses genocide because it must.”
Ahi’s plastic sculptures engage with the idea of material transformation. He explains, “I started using plastic because it’s a petroleum byproduct, just like the chemical weapons Saddam developed to kill Kurds. I wanted to transform a material used for violence into a vehicle for art.” His education introduced him to a wide range of socially engaged artists, with whom he considers himself in conversation, from Banksy to Joseph Beuys. His father, a sculptor and peshmerga (a soldier enlisted in one of the several Kurdish self-defense militias), was captured, tortured, and killed by the Iranian army in 1982. The elder Ahi “was obsessed with Kandinsky,” Shorsh recalls. As retaliation for joining protests against the state-sanctioned assassinations of a number of artists, which began in 2006, the government decreed a three-year gallery ban on Ahi’s work. “The system there doesn’t allow for free expression,” he explains. He became stateless in 2009, when he fled Iran because he feared he faced even greater dangers as an outspoken Rhojelat artist.
Ahi and his wife, Bayan Sohrabi, a Rhojelat poet and actor born in 1982, were driving toward the Azadi camp with their three-year-old son to visit friends when the missiles hit. “I was on the hill when they struck. I didn’t see the missiles, but I heard their voice.” Rather than avoiding the commotion, he drove toward the fort, which was spewing dark smoke. After spending most of the day transporting the dead and wounded to the local hospital, he asked the party leader in charge of the fort if he could make art at the site of the missile blasts, recounting his father’s murder and expressing his urgent need to contribute to his community’s healing. He began by fashioning a scrap of missile shrapnel into a stencil, and then spray-painted a cloud of butterflies onto a surviving wall. “There was a beloved shade tree here,” he explains, “so I tried to sketch its silhouette with butterflies.” For the next week, his family slept among the ruins, expanding upon his installation.
Sohrabi bandaged the damaged trees at the edge of the blast radius as if they were wounded humans, anthropomorphizing their injuries. Later, she and Ahi did the same for the ruined walls, filling pockmarks with red paint to resemble bleeding wounds. Before long, community members began to assist Sohrabi. On the precarious former second floor of the building, which had housed the library, she and an older peshmerga used loose book pages to fill the exposed vertical ribs of rebar where columns once stood. Ahi plans to use the remaining debris for later phases of the installation. “I will not let it be wasted,” he says. “I’m going to transform every piece of rubble into a tool for beauty.”
The next day, Ahi completed a portrait on a wall of Suhayla Qadiry and Nasren Haddad, two leaders of the women’s union who had been killed by the first missile. Making a horizontal chopping motion halfway down his stomach, he explains, “Both women were cut in half by an exploding wall. That’s why I painted the top halves of their bodies.” He points to the long crack in the wall where their portraits abruptly end: “The wall is injured too.”
As their transformation of the space took shape, Sohrabi suggested the installation’s eventual title, Revived by My Narrative. Her performance art has been important to the artists’ connection with the community. In one performance, she placed herself where a concrete column had supported the building, embracing the rebar as if she were holding the structure up, like a Rhojelat Atlas. In another, she stood on the stump of a decimated tree, where she slowly tied branches she had collected from the rubble to her body. “She became a part of a larger tree,” Ahi explains, “a part of our roots, our struggle.”
Late at night, Ahi used his remaining red paint on the blood-splattered walls of an interior room, where three men had died in the blast. He had helped remove their bodies, and he flung the paint against the walls in a breathless fury. After hanging a mobile crafted from the wire and other detritus that had rained from the room’s ceiling, he added two dozen handprints to the wall. They fade gradually as they descend from two meters up the wall, eerily suggesting failed escape. Three weeks later, half of the splatters have faded to pale pink. “The lighter ones are blood,” Ahi says. “It will continue to degrade over time.”
Most of Revived by My Narrative is meant to be temporary. The missiles’ craters were quickly filled, and the blood-splattered room will be repainted soon. Most of the walls featuring Ahi’s murals will be re-plastered as the community works to rebuild its hub. For the artists, this evolution is welcome; the restoration of their community has motivated the entire project. “As an artist, I use the tools at my disposal to encourage our community’s resistance,” says Ahi. Commander Haji Gulawi, a cheerful, 40-year peshmerga veteran whose name means flower, gently interrupts him. “Shorsh has sacrificed a lot. He didn’t leave us for an hour, he was so dedicated to his work. It made us brave. He made this a place of remembrance, a place of pride again.” A recent peshmerga recruit added, “His wife and kid, too.”
Ahi has plans for a permanent memorial, a sculpture that he hopes to build in the fortress’s courtyard. “I still have everything I collected after the blast,” he says proudly, though he remains quiet about his still-developing ideas. One of his simplest contributions, a mantra for Rhojelat perseverance stenciled in stylized red-and-green Kurdish, will remain beneath the archway of the fortress’s entrance. It reads, “Resistance is continuous. Life is continuous.” Ahi offers a determined smile. “They are trying to erase us from existence, but we still see beauty and art.”