Financial Times, January 6, 2017: Richard Holledge

Art by email: when artists are trapped in troubled regions

A new exhibition features works sent digitally by artists who can’t travel.

Images from the Middle East are horribly commonplace today: the shattered streets of Aleppo, or the gloating Facebook malevolence of the jihadis. But a man in a yellow T-shirt floating through blue skies supported by brightly coloured balloons?

Meet Baris Seyitvan, one of 18 artists from the Middle East and north Africa taking part in a unique exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in which all the works were delivered electronically. The venture — Beyond Boundaries: Art by Email — was embraced by the YSP when it became evident that EU visa restrictions made it nigh on impossible for any artists in the troubled region to come to the UK.

As curator Dr Helen Pheby says: “I first visited artists in Iraqi Kurdistan seven years ago and discovered that there was some really strong work being made despite the chaos that surrounded them. Sadly, the rigmarole of getting permission for them to come here is too great but technology means we can harness and display their talents so that, if the people cannot travel, the art can.”

The gallery put out an open call to artists across the region for an original art work that reflects the challenges they face. One of these was 34-year-old Seyitvan, who is also a curator of a small museum in the Turkish Kurdistan city of Diyarbakir. He explained— by email — how his entry, entitled “Isimsiz” (“Anonymous”), far from being a happy snap as its bold colours might suggest, is an expression of his longing to escape from the “tyranny of the state” that makes it almost impossible for him to produce his work.

“All my life I have been faced with wars — every day and every day nonstop. During the 1990s there was a great amount of tyranny. It increased day by day until today, when the tyranny is worse than in the 1990s. The two works I sent were influenced by unexplained murders in Diyarbakir jail. My psychology was affected because in the 1990s my father was put in the prison four times and he was tortured for 60 to 80 days.”

Since those dark times, the jail has been turned into a museum and Seyitvan often performed there as a clown to raise money for his art education. As he worked, many people who had suffered like his father shared their stories with him; that inspired him to install 200 balloons in the garden of the old jail.

“Every balloon symbolised a person,” he says. “The garden, which had a sad atmosphere, suddenly became full of balloons and when people saw that they felt happy. But the gallery is now threatened with closure so the idea of freedom has gained more importance than ever.”

Like Seyitvan, most of the entrants are, understandably, motivated by the turmoil around them. But as Adalet R Garmiany, founder of ArtRole, an organisation set up to promote Middle Eastern artists, is eager to stress: “People still have hope and want to continue with life — it’s a good message to send. In the UK and Europe we get the headlines, not the subtleties of existence in the region, and the information is 90 per cent negative. The opportunity for an exhibition like this to help clear up feelings of misunderstanding from the European point of view is enormous.”

Garmiany, a British citizen of Kurdish descent who studied at the Hull School of Art and Design in Yorkshire, launched ArtRole in 2004 and worked with the YSP to select the exhibitors. “People think this country has been destroyed,” he says, Skypeing from Erbil, only 50km from Mosul, where Iraqi forces are battling with Isis. “Yes, there is a conflict, but there is a life also and, compared with Syria, Turkey and Iraq, where much is on fire, this region is fantastic.”

Nonetheless he talks about “the project of fear” that ervades his community. “People are uncertain and insecure,” he says. “They expect something bad to happen. They have lost relatives on the battlefield, thousands are dead and there are millions of refugees. “To add to this fear, the extremists use technology to deliver their messages to frighten and recruit people, but we too want to use power of the image to show the resilience, hope and creativity that thrives throughout the region.”

That resilience — though perhaps not the hope — is evident in “A Yezidi Refugee with his Pillow”, posted by Kurdish photographer Younes Mohammad, who has been working in Mosul. His picture captures an old man driven from his home by Isis, wandering lost and confused in a ruined city where he sleeps in a different place every night — a school, the streets, a construction site — with only a pillow for comfort.

The boundaries of email versatility are being stretched in a project by Sahand Hesamiyan from Tehran, whose installation “Pardis” (Paradise) will be reproduced using a 3D printer.

The original, made of mirrored stainless steel, resembles cypress trees, symbols of purity in Iranian culture, hung from a ceiling so that viewers can walk through them on a “sacred journey”. The original is 2.6m high but the 3D version, which will be printed out once a week during the exhibition’s run, will be just 30cm — and the closest technology can get to matching its lustre will be a rendering in a matt white polystyrene.

Similarly ambitious is the role of Azar Othman Mahmood, who is to be “artist in residence” without leaving his home in Sulaimani, Iraq. His installation, “People’s Questions in a City”, examines the effects of the consumer society on his community by collecting opinions from the public on everyday issues such as, “How much is the environment important to you?” or “Do you know what a city plan is?” He has displayed the written answers on a wall in the city and intends to reprise the questions for visitors to the Sculpture Park using #ForAzar and having their replies posted in the park grounds.

He writes: “It is a nice project. Culture . . . should work on a global level. We need to exchange our knowledge and establish a new and healthy society. The main theme of my project is to encourage people to ask the questions and search for the answers that help them go beyond the boundaries that limit us.”

© The Financial Times Ltd.