The life and work of Kurdish-Iraqi artist Adalet R. Garmiany is a study in contrasts. From sorrow to success, tragedy to triumph, he is a storyteller whose performance practice is a narrative of a life and a people as resilient as the mountains of his homeland, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Born in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 1973, Adalet Raza Garmiany is a performance artist, musician and cultural producer. He is also the founder-director of ArtRole, a cultural NGO that works to establish artistic exchanges between Iraq, the Kurdish region of Iraq and international creative communities. Communication is a prominent theme in the former guerilla fighter’s practice, as his heritage and ancestral homeland is little known outside the region, yet plays a pivotal role in the history and future of the Middle East. 

The Kurdish people are an indigenous ethnic minority with ancient roots in western Asia, currently inhabiting areas that include present-day Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, with a significant diaspora throughout Europe and the United States. Numbering approximately 30 million, Kurds are the largest ethnic group without an independent state, at the heart of decades of bloody conflict between national governments and Kurdish nationalists. NATO-enforced no-fly zones protected Iraqi Kurds, who suffered through a brutal genocide campaign known as al-Anfal. The name comes from sura al-Anfal in the Qu’ran, which refers to the “spoils of war” and was the code name for the series of systematic attacks on the Kurdish population in northern Iraq in the 1980s, culminating in a chemical attack on the town of Halabja in 1988.  In the years that followed, the population gained considerable autonomy and tumultuously evolved into the self-governing federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan. 

It was against this backdrop that Garmiany’s art education began. In 1986, he entered a secondary-school art course in Tuz Khormato, 34 miles south of his birthplace. In 1989, he enrolled at the Institute of Art in Mosul, but, sadly, his studies were cut short after only one year, as the town where his family still lived became a battlefield. Garmiany recalls, “I was about 15 or 16 years old; I remember the fights with tanks and helicopters.” Losing his family; having his home occupied, looted, then destroyed by the Iraqi army, Adalet joined the fighting. Eventually he and his family fled the town. They walked for three days, surviving on whatever vegetation they could find along the way. Like millions of others, they briefly sought refuge in Iran before returning to Iraq.

He resumed his studies at the Institute of Art in Sulaymaniyah in 1992. He described the following three years as a “surreal experience,” struggling to find the words to reconcile his pursuit of normality in his current educational experience against the state of hardship and recovery around him: The child who sketched the world around him grew into an adult who wished to learn about the world past borders and battles. In the absence of Saddam Hussein’s control in the northern provinces, the educational system allowed for an expansion of the arts curriculum, and Adalet was exposed to teachings in Western art history from the Classical period through the Renaissance to Modernism. He was also drawn to philosophy and world history. Studying by candlelight, with the Iraqi army a few miles outside the city, education was Adalet’s “safe zone.” Encouraged by his family—his mother especially—Adalet completed his studies in 1995 and moved to Erbil to work as a fine arts instructor.

One of 11 children, Garmiany came from a tight-knit family for which creativity and curiosity was as natural as the affection between them. “I have had influence on my family. I always encouraged them to read and find out about their skills, about the world…. I knew that the guns and violence are not always the solution and [the day will come] when we will need people with brains to make something good for this country.” Five of Adalet’s siblings followed creative paths. Ali is a painter and performance artist; filmmaker Sarbast is currently screening his latest film, Grill, at international film festivals; his sister Shwanm is a photographer involved in women’s issues; Chro is currently studying English literature at university while working on her first book and is an integral part of ArtRole; actress Hesho starred as the protagonist in Grill and is currently working on other film projects. Their maternal grandfather, Rafiq Sabr, was a well-known singer as was their uncle, Jabar Sabr (who was killed in the Anfal campaign).

Adalet’s cultural pedigree and Dervish heritage informed his work in experimental music and performance. He grew into his artistic persona and away from the conservative politically charged environment that was about to cleave itself in two, growing his hair long, wearing fetching jewelry, and no outfit was complete without a scarf; all the while perfecting his ancient chants and daf drumming skills and incorporating them into his contemporary art practice. He began working for a French NGO involved in youth development.

This would be his last job in Kurdistan for a very long time: Between 1994 and 1997, a civil war between the two major Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), unfolded, shattering the region’s fragile stability in the region that had emerged after the establishment of no-fly zones. Garmiany wanted no part in a political power struggle, but independence was not an option. One was to be either for one party or the other or condemned to constant scrutiny and suspicion. When he traveled to Sulaymaniyah he was accused of working for the KDP; when he was in Erbil he was accused of spying for the PUK. “There were articles [laws] by the Iraqi government,” he said as if it were a situation experienced by someone else, ”stating that any Iraqis working for Western organisations were considered spies and the punishment was the death penalty. My name was on the list.”

The internal conflict, also known as Birakujî or fratricide, not only pit Kurdish leaders against one another, tore families and communities apart along party lines, but allowed the re-entry of the mutual enemy: Saddam Hussein took advantage of the fissure and, at the invitation of one of the party leaders who wished to crush his adversary at any cost, invaded the capital. Deeply affected by the depravity of the situation, Adalet’s artwork began to take more of a critical approach. His work was still predominantly painting, sculpture and installation. He contributed artwork and designed posters for events commemorating the Halabja attack and festivals to remember the Anfal campaign. According to Garmiany, one of the first installation pieces created in Kurdistan was a stone sculpture created using rocks he collected from the mountains. The untitled work was produced in 1995 “in the name of Anfal.” The work was symbolic of the importance of the Kurds’ connection to the geography of the region, as the rocky landscapes of Kurdistan served as a sanctuary for several millennia. Kurd hich hawerrey neya taneya shax nabey is a popular Kurdish proverb that translates into “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”

Garmiany’s artistic output spoke out against Saddam’s brutal repression as well as his own society and government, whose infighting threatened to drag the budding political entity back down the bloody path of the previous decade. “I was always one of those crazy artists try
ing to do something new. This is the kind of challenge facing a society just beginning to start their journey in establishing a nation. So, trying to challenge that, the world has changed and we need to hurry up to find out how we are going to manage to at least be a part of the caravan. I was someone who believed in modernity. We need to change. We need to keep our identity, but we need to change.” Adalet earned the ire of the Kurdish and Iraqi authorities with his activism. His ability to remain in Kurdistan, yet out of prison, soon became untenable. 

“At the end of the day you stand up and say ‘what else can I do? There is no alternative, at any moment you can get killed. I simply did not want to follow any political party. So my only choice was to leave the country.” Paying smugglers to get him out of Kurdistan, it took Adalet four months to reach the United Kingdom. “I faced death many times, but this is life. You want to gain something, you have to be ready to pay something back. And I consider myself a tough guy, I had seen a lot already. This is the life; you have to fight until you die. This is the life for people like us…with our history and background.” 

He arrived in the UK on March 22nd, 2000. Among his possessions were documents attesting to his persecution and imprisonment and photographs of his installations, some drawings and other vestiges of his oeuvre that he was able to carry with him. With the support of new friends and refugee activists, Adalet secured a lawyer and applied for asylum. He also applied to art school, sensing an opportunity to expand his arts education. He was granted asylum and a place in the Fine Art program at Lincoln University on the same day.

He described his experience as a student in the UK as an “eye opener.” Even with little English, he found new ways to communicate and network with artistic peers. He also broke away from one practice to develop a new creative identity. Not content to continue with what he called the “usual form of making artworks,” Adalet immersed himself into his new life as an art student in the west, opening up to using different materials in new environments. He was astonished to learn that his Anfal rock sculpture and its process is actually identified with an artistic genre. “I never heard of ‘installation art,’ I just did it, without any [outside] information. It was an organic development to me, as I did not have any resources on contemporary art or internet. I think this kind of attitude, this kind of foundation inside me was already there so when I went to Europe I welcomed it.”

Adalet recounts the story of his evolution into performance: 

“I remember my first 4months [in the UK]. It was November, 2000; I went on a university camping trip. It was snowing and it was really cold. I did not understand English really well. The teacher asked the students to bring some materials so they can make artwork during the trip. I did not understand so I did not take anything. When I got there, they said I should make something. All I had was my bilûr (a flute-type instrument), a banana, some apples, and a few other items. I went with one of the students to the countryside and found a small creek. I decided I was going to do a performance there. I had just learned about performance. I took my clothes off, picked up some stones from the water, and put something together. I put my bilûr on top of the rocks with the banana and apples. I found a piece of wood and put my socks on both sides. 

My friend took photos. When we got back everyone was extremely surprised. Because they thought I came from this other background they wondered [if] I could immediately do something like that? It was extreme for them and it was extreme for me but also it was really great to break the barriers. There was nothing stopping me if I wanted to do something. That is how I became a kind of site-specific artist. I was into the area of freedoms the area of testing everything, taking from the whole space around you…for the simple materials for even the smell around you. And this is how my journey started with performance.”

Adalet stopped producing painting and sculpture in 2001 and devoted himself to performance and conceptual art. He co-founded the music group Yorkshire Kurd and founded the Kurdish dance troupe Hawtaw. During his studies he created a number of performances including Color Games (2002). Fascinated by the sea, something he had never seen before, Adalet devised a collaborative project with 20-25 people to celebrate the battle between the land and the sea. Participants painted themselves with color to emphasise the contrasts of nature. Terrorist (2003) was performed a few days before the start of the second Iraq war. Incorporating volunteers in balaclavas, sound, a darkened room, and audience participation, the performance challenges the definition of “terrorist”. Who is a terrorist? Is there one particular “face” to be identified with terrorism? These were a few of the questions the work sought to encourage audiences to ponder. Adalet and his colleagues occupied the basement, dressed in balaclavas and using their voices, sound equipment and props like wood and metal, which created an eerie scene that visitors were meant to navigate in the dark. They were asked to write their thoughts on terrorists/terrorism. The first Iraqi Kurd arrived in Hull in 1999 and as part of the UK’s policy of dispersing asylum seekers, more Kurds began to arrive in subsequent years. However, the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the 2003 war with Iraq threatened discord and distrust in the northern English town. The performance was designed to confront the issues of misperception and mistrust.

The majority of Garmiany’s work is drawn from his personal experiences or his background as a Sufi and Dervish. Garmiany says Silence (2006) was an “interpretation of spirituality.” Performed at Hull Art Lab, the performance involved turning the exhibition space into a desert using two to three tons of sand. Using candles, fabric, scent, and smoke, Garmiany created a temple complete with chants from a variety of religions, mixed his voice chanting in Kurdish. Beside the candles, the only other light was a bright spotlight. The rest of the space was dark and viewers had to navigate blindly until they found Adalet in the centre, under the spotlight in solitary meditation. This work was a commentary on the demands of society affecting one’s inner balance. 

“We live in a very crowded world and lots of things [are happening] around us, a very demanding society. Individuals sometimes get lost, you barely recognize yourself. So my point is whatever is happening around you, how much we can gain, we can achieve. But do not lose yourself.  [From] time to time you need to review yourself; you need to get back to yourself. Getting connected to the universe, you need to first communicate with yourself before you can communicate with the rest.“

Garmiany founded ArtRole in 2004 after graduation from university, in keeping with his desire to foster greater communication between diverse groups through artistic practice. He especially wanted to develop creative dialogues between the Middle East and the West. Since 2006, ArtRole has produced projects in the UK, USA and Iraqi Kurdistan, including the Post War Festival in Sulaymaniyah in 2009, where his largest collaborative performance to date, Memory Game (2009), was performed; and Contemporary Art Iraq in Manchester in 2010. It was in 2010 that Adalet felt it was time to return to Iraqi Kurdistan. “I just noticed that that whole world changed. Looking at Kurdistan Iraq, it is not the same [region] I left before. It is growing, wealthy, fresh and looking for the future. I saw myself as being part of the process helping Kurdistan, helpi
ng Iraq.” He also pointed to the economic crisis affecting the cultural sector in the UK. “I was not going to achieve any more in the UK what I have achieved in the past 10 years and I need to be here myself, connected to the ground in direct projects.”

It has been two years since Adalet R. Garmiany returned to Iraqi Kurdistan and opened the Erbil office of ArtRole. He still performs at events and festivals. However, more of his energies are directed towards running ArtRole’s programming, including curating exhibitions and conferences. Active in promoting women’s rights and gender equality for over a decade, ArtRole’s annual Women in Action Conference is an extension of Adalet’s goal of highlighting the position of women in Iraqi society. This was a fitting role for someone whose name means ‘justice.’ It is the first conference in Iraq to examine the issues around women’s rights through arts, culture and education. Now in its second edition the conference has brought together Iraqi and international female artists, activists and academics together to discuss how the arts can address the gender divide in the region. Participants have included the American playwright and performance artist Catharine Filloux and Kurdish playwright and theatre director Gaziza Omer. 

Although he has endured great loss and suffering, Adalet has always maintained a positive outlook and sought peace with the past and a desire to help rebuild a nation through artistic dialogue.

More information about ArtRole is available on their website.

Valeria Missalina Bembry is a writer living in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. At the time of writing, Iraq and the autonomous region of Kurdistan were embroiled in a tense standoff in disputed areas. Tensions led to a troop build-up after a clash between Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish security occurred in Tuz Khurmato, killing a civilian bystander.

* Memory Game, 2009. Performance view, ArtRole: Post War Festival. Performers include Richard Wilson, Ann Bean, Miyaka Marita, Chris  Gladwin, Anna Bowman UK and Liaka Rafik (Adalet’s mum) and about 50 Kurdish artists,  musicians, students, Saddam Hussian X-prisoners.