For her first institutional solo exhibition, the British-Kurdish artist Jala Wahid (b.1988) has opted for a minimal ensemble, which is effective in its use of the difficult, almost oppressively cubic space at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. A two-metre-high sculpture takes centre stage, accompanied by a fifty-five-minute sound work and a wall-mounted circular light sculpture. Issues related to diasporic identity, the Kurdish question and its connection with global politics are central to the practice of Wahid, whose parents relocated from Kurdistan to England in the mid-1980s. In particular, the exhibition addresses the relationship between the United Kingdom and Kurdistan, which has historically been motivated and mediated by the sale and export of oil. As soon as oil was discovered, the fate of the Kurdish population – which totals somewhere between 30 and 40 million people, mostly split across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – became inextricably tied to it. It was this industry that fuelled British involvement in the area, rather than a commitment to an economically and politically independent Kurdish state.
The central sculpture, Baba Gurgur FIG.1, is a cartoonishly oversized rendition of the modest Salvia spinosa flower, which is common throughout North Africa, central Asia and north-west Afghanistan. As the exhibition text informs us, this is the only plant that can grow in the scorching hot shale of the Baba Gurgur oil field in the province of Kirkuk in Iraq. Baba Gurgur was considered the largest oil field in the world until 1948, when it was superseded by the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. Resembling the outcome of some toxic mutation, the sculpture is coated in shades of green and blue, and fitted with an internal light to imitate the iridescence of petrol film. Thus, the flower – a symbolic, overground index of the oil beneath – here becomes a hallucinogenic monument to the political mirage of an independent Kurdistan.
The field of Baba Gurgur was drilled for the first time in October 1927, generating a black fountain forty-two metres in height that threatened the surrounding villages. This event is commemorated by the wall-mounted light sculpture titled Sick Pink Sun (03:00 14.10.1927 – ) FIG.2, which recalls the circular light installations of James Turrell. Flooded with pink light, the brown-painted walls of the gallery become a deep burnt umber. This still but unnatural illumination creates a suspended atmosphere, as though reflecting the glare of a fire frozen in time. This is likely a nod to the Eternal Fire of Baba Gurgur (‘Father of Fire’ in the local language), a small patch of land in the oil field where flames are believed to have been naturally burning for four thousand years.
The colour of the light sculpture also references the bombing of oil fields by the so-called Islamic State group in 2016 and their visible effects on the atmosphere due to the release of fumes. If, at the time of discovery, oil pointed to an underground heaven, a portal to self-determination and industrial development, the sculpture evokes a (very present) dystopian vision of ecological collapse, a toxic hellscape, albeit a rather photogenic one. Wahid’s recent sculptural practice is dependent on this dichotomy – one that is epitomised by a flower in a desert, or better, a burning oil field. Her resin and fibreglass sculptures revel in the tension between aestheticised design and the sense of something ominous boiling underneath. This is most often achieved through contrasting light, acid colours and forms that are both glamorous and threatening: long painted nails on reaching fingers FIG.3, gaping mouths FIG.4 and blooms that seem ready to swallow you whole. Sensuous and sinister, the work is a simultaneous celebration of Kurdish culture and an exploration of the longing of diasporic communities.
This same contrast is reflected in the sound piece, Naphtha Maqam (2022), which was created in collaboration with the music producer Owen Pratt and Amal Saeed Kurda, a Kurdish singer and composer. The soundscape intersperses recordings of oil drilling, electronic beats, Wahid flatly recounting archival correspondence between British Petroleum officials, and a series of maqams, a traditional melodic structure, evocatively sung by Kurda. Unlike traditional maqams, here the words are written and sung in English, although they are distorted and lengthened to the point of becoming unintelligible at times. Wahid’s voice interjects episodically with more decipherable language: ‘We live in a country with plenty of coal and no oil. Whether you like it or not we have arrived at the age of oil’. Across this near-hour-long audio work, the hero of the story remains Baba Gurgur; its oil and its landscape are personified, culminating in a speculative future in which the sentient oil implores to be reburied into the ground: ‘Don’t frown, look at me / Dig where there’s no deep / I’m begging you / Sepulchre me, sepulchre me’.
The area in front of the art centre, Baltic Square, is often the site of protests, ranging from those staged by COVID-19 anti-vaxxers to Extinction Rebellion rallies. It is not uncommon to see Kurdish flags waving as part of demonstrations from the Kurdish community. Although there is no direct relationship between Baltic and the events in the public square adjacent to it, the regular presence of protesters, including on the day of this reviewer’s visit, inevitably raises questions concerning the relationship between art institutions and direct action. More often than not, these occur in two seemingly distinct places: one for contingent action in response to current events, and one for art about politics, which tends to consider a wider timeframe.
In this case, Wahid’s installation is not necessarily designed to inform, but instead weaves a web of references to engage the viewer through an ‘emotive lens’ – that is, material, colour, light, music and poetry – rather than, one supposes, a more research-heavy, documentarist output.1 That is not to say that the artist’s methodology relies on sentimentality, quite the opposite; her work is visually sophisticated and supported by a layered conceptual framework. Nonetheless, once these references are decoded, the meaning can feel enslaved by the precision of the sculpture’s design, leaving little ambiguity to play with. Although the music goes some way to filling this void, the installation suffers from the stark contrast between a sexy, shiny fibreglass protagonist that does not demand much contemplation from the viewer, and an audio piece that, especially when played at a low volume, asks for the opposite: a prolonged, strained engagement of one’s ears. It is a matter of discernment whether the sound work delivers enough to captivate the individual visitor for its full length. This reviewer, however, was left with the sensation of witnessing a scenography in search of its main act.