Embodying the Yazidi pain through art
The Yazidi people have faced more tragedies than any community should ever have to. Throughout history, the ethno-religious minority, whose homeland is on the fertile Nineweh plains of north-western Iraq, have been victims of 74 genocides.
I witnessed the most recent of them. In 2014, the so-called Islamic State group (IS) captured Yazidi-majority towns and villages across north-western Iraq, because they believe Yazidis to be devil-worshippers, and thus aimed to wipe the community out. They killed thousands of Yazidis, most of them men, and dumped the bodies in mass and individual graves. They also enslaved thousands of other women and children.
There is almost no surviving evidence or records documenting the traumas of the 73 genocides they suffered before IS’ acts of violence... But post-2014, Yazidis have been using painting as a tool to immortalise the genocide
According to the Survivors office, around 85 percent of the Yazidis’ homes in places such as the centre of Sinjar and the affiliated villages and complexes were destroyed, as well as 68 shrines and temples. Thousands of people are still missing and in captivity. According to IOM statistics, about 350,000 people ended up living in 16 IDP camps in Kurdistan/Northern Iraq, where the close to 200,000 people have remained for almost seven years.
In March this year, the Iraqi government recognised the campaign of killing and enslavement as genocide, and passed legislation that allows survivors to seek compensation.
The year 2014 was a turning point for us in many ways. One of them is how a new generation of artists – and painters in particular – emerged among the Yazidis in the IDP camps of the Kurdistan region, a semi-autonomous area of northern Iraq.
“Yazidis chose painting specifically because it is an individual activity that does not require spending too much money. People only need some simple supplies and materials, and can practice it unlike other artistic activities like acting, which needs a group of people to work on and so consumes money and effort,” said Dikra Ali, one of the participants of a painting training workshop in Sinjar.
Before IS’s campaign of persecution in 2014, there were only a few Yazidi artists, as the community did not pay much attention to painting.
Yazidis documenting their suffering through painting has prompted a shift in attitudes towards the art form. They now use painting as a mechanism to describe what they have been through
“The reason that we did not have many painters before 2014 is because people were busy with their work and school,” said Ravo Osman, one of the better-known pre-genocide Yazidi artists.
Those who showed talent for the art form had minimal support from their community. It was held in very low esteem considered an unnecessary habit.
“Art was considered as a luxury, which is practiced when you have reached the level of a luxurious life, but Yazidis did not have that life, so art is regarded as a secondary – or even less than a secondary – thing for them,” said Falah Alrasam, a Yazidi artist from Sinjar who lives in the Bersivi IDP camp in Kurdistan.
But since then, painting has played different roles. It has filled long hours in lives in limbo.
“After 2014, Yezidi youth had nothing to do and had a lot of free time in the IDP camps, so they started to work on their painting skills,” said Osman.
It has also become a way for Yazidis to document the violence that they have endured.
There is almost no surviving evidence or records documenting the traumas of the 73 genocides they suffered before IS’ acts of violence. Very little remained to memorialise exactly what happened. But post-2014, Yazidis have been using painting as a tool to immortalise the genocide.
“Throughout history, famous artists have always documented events in paintings, so that until now we have these documents and study them,” said Falah Alrasam.
“Yazidis are doing the same to record this event so that future generations know about it, and also to raise awareness among people about the crimes that IS committed against human rights.”
Before 2014, Yazidi artists, including Falah Alrasam, Ravo Ossman, Amar Salim, and Kamal Hadaqi, painted portraits, and documented representations of the culture such as traditional clothes, customs, and religious and social ceremonies. But because of the lack of support from their community, the number of their paintings was very limited.
Osman, one of the few Yazidi artists whose paintings of the culture have been shown in exhibitions in Iraq and Europe, said that his painting style shifted after IS’ decimation of the community seven years ago.
“Originally, I was focusing more on realistic and expressionist paintings, but after 2014 I changed my painting style and focused on a surrealistic style,” he said. “With this style, one can embody more than one story in a single painting and represent a view of their future as well, and this style was suitable to embody the Yazidi pain as well. I did that specifically in the genocide painting, which tells many stories at once and also has some view of the future.”
Other artists adopt realist forms. Falah Alrasam’s Running After Getting Water shows a young girl running after a water tanker, and is a painting of a photo taken during IS’ sweep across northern Iraq by photographers who were on the mountain. Their invasion forced thousands of people to seek shelter on Sinjar Mountain, which casts its shadow over Yazidi towns and villages. They were left with minimal food and water. The painting shows the desperation and harsh circumstances into which the community had been forced.
Yazidis documenting their suffering through painting has prompted a shift in attitudes towards the art form. They now use painting as a mechanism for describing and documenting what they’ve been through.
“After 2014, whoever was interested in painting or had a talent for it tried to embody the genocide in paintings, to make it visible to the whole world,” said Alrasam.
Ghazala Jango is a Yazidi researcher from Sinjar in north-eastern Iraq, currently completing her journalism degree at the American University of Sulaimani.