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Kurdish Art: An Interview with Lukman Ahmad

The Kurdish Project had the opportunity to interview Lukman Ahmad, a Kurdish artist who is using art as a weapon of peace and understanding. Learn more about how Lukman is raising awareness about Kurdish life and culture through his work.

The Kurdish Project: Where were you born in Kurdistan?

Lukman Ahmad: I was born in Rojava, Syria, in a small town on the border of Turkey called Al-Darbasiyah. This town was divided, cut in two parts by the border. Before the Baath Party and Arab nationalism controlled Syria, my family had two homes—one in Turkey and one in Syria. Then they built the border and my family could not return to Turkey, so we stayed in Syria.

When I was nine my family moved to a Kurdish city called Al-Hadiqa. In Al-Hadiqa, there is diversity—we have Christians, Arabs, Armenians, Yazidis. We lived harmoniously, but slowly the Ba’ath Party divided people [by religion and ethnicity]. That’s when I understood what it meant to be a Kurd in Syria. When I was a child, I was unaware of these issues. But Al-Hadiqa was the first place that I felt the struggle of being a Kurd.

TKP: When did you come to the U.S.?

LA: I came here in 2010 from Istanbul. I had applied for political asylum in Turkey because I had some serious problems with Syria’s government authorities. Although I never worked with a political party, I could not live safely in Syria because I had worked with Kurdish people. It became clear that working within Kurdish culture and art was dangerous. I received asylum in Turkey in 2010, and eventually moved to the U.S. Now I am an American citizen. 

TKP: Your artwork is very focused on Kurdistan—particularly Kurdish music, literature, and culture. How do you choose what to paint?

LA: When you grow up [in an environment where] speaking Kurdish in the street means that someone can beat or arrest you, you start to feel very unsafe. But I decided to take a side, and stay with my people and defend them. I became an artist to give hope to my people.

I use art as a weapon—but as a “peace weapon.” I use my art to tell the story—to tell the truth—about the Kurds. If you travel from Hadiqa to Homs and tell people you are a Kurd, they look at you like you are from another world. But if you can teach in a cultural or artistic way, things will be more friendly, more lovely, more peaceful.

At the time [of my exhibitions in Syria], I had a lot of friends [of other cultures], and I brought them to a celebration in my city for Nowruz. After visiting, many people changed their view of the Kurds. They saw that we are very peaceful people who have been under the control of the Syrian regime. With my art, I have built relationships with many people who, politically, are enemies of the Kurds. But they have changed their ideas about the Kurds and have a better understanding of us.

Art is more than a political movement or action—it speaks to something different. When people see color and shape, they understand there is a story behind it. And through the story, you can understand what the issues are. 

I have seen a lot of Kurdish artists who use slogans or very direct political [statements]. For example, they will draw a flag of Kurdistan, or a fighter. I don’t like this, because it becomes like a poster for a political party. Art should be art. Art should not be a part of any political party or ideas. Art [itself] can work. 

So I tried to go deep into Kurdish history [for ideas for my artwork]. At first, I could not find many stories. Then, I found Kurdish songs—what we call Kurdish “epics.” The epics are traditional songs, and the artists [who create the epics] use their voice, the music, and the story to [safeguard] our history. They keep the stories for generations and generations. When I listened to those songs, I was inspired—and I still am. They are very dramatic, tragic, and romantic. It is like cinema, but just through voice, words, and imagination. These epics are very unique, as I have not seen this in Arab culture, Turkish culture, or Persian culture—only Kurdish culture.

TKP: Did you always love Kurdish epics, literature, and poetry? Or did you discover it as an inspiration to your art?

LA: I have always loved music. Music does not belong to a nation, it belongs to humanity.

I learned of Kurdish epics from my father. He would sometimes make me stay at home with just him, and he would start singing. [He would do this] when he remembered somebody, like his father or brother, who had passed away. It was very emotional. I didn’t understand the words at the beginning, but as I started to understand more, I was able to go deeply inside the songs. I could see how the words were building a story. They were not just normal words—they were a cry. The best times in my life is when I listen to this music. 

TKP: When did you start painting?

LA: I was six or seven-years-old, and my teachers in primary school noticed my artistic skills. One teacher encouraged me to work in art and eventually, I was doing sculpture and winning art competitions for children in Syria. Nobody in my family supported me—they tried to take me away from art. But I was too involved. I was always drawing, on anything. Sometimes, if I didn’t have material or papers, I would draw on the air, moving my fingers. And people would say, “Are you crazy?” And I would say, “No, I’m drawing it to keep it in my mind.”

When I was around sixteen, my skills developed and people started to see that a new artist was born in al Hadiqah. In 1998, I had a show in al Hadiqah, and that’s when the people, artists and political figures of al Hadiqah recognized me as a true artist. But it’s a process. I [still] can’t say I am totally an artist—art can be difficult. It pushes you a lot and doesn’t provide a very normal life. You cannot say “I am here, I did it, I’m done.” I am still working and still learning.

TKP: Do you feel like your art keeps you connected to Kurdistan?

LA: Absolutely, yes. I am so lucky that when I came here, people appreciated how I [told] their stories. In my exhibition, I talked about hope. The title of my last exhibition was “The Story Behind Colors.” I’m working to tell American people the truth about Kurdistan. The media and politics show the Kurdish issue with an ugly face. People think we are just fighters, that we kill people, that we are terrorists. I try to remove that through my art. I tell people that Kurdistan is a very beautiful country. The world is missing [awareness of] a very beautiful and a very rich culture in the Middle East—the Kurdish culture. The world is missing our millions of stories, our very unique music, and our beautiful dress. When you go to the Middle East, there is Turkish music, Persian music, and Arab music. But there is not Kurdish music.

We are not just peshmerga, we are not just guerilla. We are human beings. We are people like all  other people in the world.

TKP: Thank you for your beautiful work.

LA: Thank you for your work. To repeat many times the name of “Kurdistan” is something [important] for me. I will cry—this name, “Kurdistan,” means a lot for us. It is not a political label. It is our life.

I have done some stories and paintings that I call “Short Stories” that is based on my mother’s life. My mother could not express herself as a woman, or as a Kurd, but she would always wear Kurdish dresses. She could not speak a word of Arabic, as she had not gone to school. Even when she prayed, she prayed in Kurdish. One time I told her “Mom, your God doesn’t listen to you.” And she said “Why?” And I said “Because he doesn’t understand the Kurdish language. Nobody accepts Kurdish as a language.” She laughed, and said, “I don’t believe that. God is watching our heart, not what we say.”

Hopefully, we [Kurds] can achieve our hope. It has been a long, long, long time for [Kurds] to get freedom.

Artists are a filter. You get water, and you put it through a filter, and it becomes pure. An artist is a filter of stories and of life. A lot of people cannot express themselves—they do not have the ability to say what is happening to them, so they stay silent. Artists can tell that story—and through their imagination, they can create something unique and deliver it to the people. 

[Art] cannot be away from the people. In fact, art should be the voice of people. Maybe if I was born in America or Europe, my views would be different. But because I was born in Kurdistan, I will never, ever give up.

I promise my myself, I promise to the mountains of Kurdistan, I promise to the people of Kurdistan, I will do the best for them. I will keep going.

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