Mythology in the Art of Zuhdi Sardar’s Kurdish Balakian Women: From Baghdad to North Hollywood

By Dr Amir Sharifi:

Legend has it that a king in Kurdistan ordered his men to go to Asia and Europe to find the most beautiful women and bring them back so that he could marry them. Upon their return many years later, they learned that the king had died. The men had fallen in love with the women; they married them and settled down in the Balakian region located northeast of Erbil, the current capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Balakian women are known for their beautiful big eyes and long necks.

This is the myth behind a series of paintings by Zuhdi Sardar, the prominent Kurdish diasporic artist, whose Kurdish Women series is on display in Gallery 800 in North Hollywood, a city where art galleries define its bohemian identity. The gallery throbbed with art and sentiments emanating from different artists’ textures, genres, colors, and themes. I almost missed Sardar Zuhdi’s as I was looking for familiar images in a multitude of unfamiliar artwork. I asked Sardar about his wondrous series of five pieces of art work, its origin, and history.

“This was perhaps my first experiment with mythologized beauty of Kurdish women and it was a delight to depict the myth. My paintings were first shown in Baghdad, all of which were sold out. Soon my art enabled me to travel beyond Kurdistan. I was fortunate to have an exhibition of the same works in Paris in 1967 sponsored by the famed Dr. Kamran Bedrkhan. I was thrilled to see tremendous interest in my work as all my paintings were sold out. In 1969 I came to California and started working in NBC as a scenic artist.

“The Kurdish women series work in its original form was a naturalistic painting with brush strokes of oil and sand. The series was reproduced in 1973 and shown in the Skinny Art Gallery in Los Angeles based on the reprint of the original work, transformed from the original organic style to an abstract form on hard edged canvass embedding the iconic women. This rendition also enjoyed rave reviews by acclaimed art critics. Once again I sold all the paintings”.

Sardar characterizes the new reprints and repainting of the iconic women as abstract expressionism in texture, vividness, lush bright colors on canvass and wood. “My reason for renewing this work now is motivated by recent emergence of Kurdish women as freedom fighters and warriors in the mainstream media. I wanted to show another dimension of Kurdish women and their mythologized beauty as well, women who have played a leading role in their fight against ISIS”.

Sardar Zuhdi with his art work; Credit - Rojeen Sharifi

Sardar Zuhdi with his art work; Credit – Rojeen Sharifi

Reflecting on the sources of his inspirations, Sardar in his usual jovial manner remarked, “My childhood was filled with fairy tales, mysterious worlds and lands, the fierce fight between Deeves ‘demons’ and goodness, light and darkness, a magical world in which the forces of goodness protected us from evil while forces of evil threatened us. The very forces we face today. These tales and experiences I have also chronicled in my new book ‘Forces’. My passion for art was informed by these experiences; my art is imbued with Kurdish themes and sensibilities although my native culture may not always be visible in some of my works, it is the running theme in all. I started experimenting with modern art in my hometown Silemany. Like my people I was filled with hope and the quest for freedom and art gave me the optimism and the direction I wanted.”

Reflecting on the origins and transformations of the work, Sardar said, “Although I began to work in a major American network as an artist, I remained true to my the lived experiences of my people and Kurdish heritage as shown in a myriad of galleries and museum Kurdisness is the life force inherent in my works”.

On the state of Kurdish art, Sardar did not sound very optimistic, “Unfortunately others have appropriated Kurdish ancient and archeological arts and Kurdish contemporary art has not flourished as it has never had any patrons and political favoritism in recent times has supported only a select few. For reasons of political tumult and displacements, Kurdish art’s progress was arrested and modernism of 1960’s and 70’s was also displaced and became an exiled art, deprived of any support. Most Kurds are not educated in and through art. That is why there is lack of interest in art in general and the Kurdistan Regional Government has not paid attention to the works of diasporic Kurdish artists, works that constitute a significant part of our art and cultural history”.

Sardar pensively added that Kurds do not have a national art museum for worthy works of the past and present to be preserved and displayed. A center that could also be used as a resource to educate our people and others. Although Sardar has an impressive list of exhibitions in Los Angeles, he wishes to take his art work to where it all began, Silemani, the very heart of Kurdish cultural life, where many Kurdish prominent artists, poets, and artists emerged to shape the trajectory of Kurdish modern art.

I asked him the first question last “What prompted you to become an artist?”

“I paint life as I have lived and imagined it in this world and worlds beyond”, he replied. “I paint to bridge the past and present. my land and with other lands and even planets. I paint to look back and look ahead when it comes to the Kurdish struggle for freedom. I have a narrative poem in my latest book ‘Forces’ which captures my vision. As a child I was fascinated with reaching the height of mountains:

…through the echoes of the passes

through stillness and silence in a silver cast

punctuated with a ferocious roar

of much of a greater force for a child’s mind

the trembling ground

between the granite rocks

farthest went the stream

too fast to be bound

too deep to be probed

Too many springs to count

Beyond the wings of eagles

Too many visions to imagine

To discover the landscape you feared at last

Its origin fearfully far beyond the cave and the Sharasoor plain

Far beyond where mystery and vision meet.

For more information about Zuhdi Sardar’s work, visit: 

Dr. Amir Sharifi – President of the Kurdish American Education Society Los Angeles

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