Beyond identity boxes and nation-state borders: Kurdish Artists in Diaspora

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By Kimia Akbari

At an estimated 30 million, the Kurds are among the world’s largest stateless population. They are dispersed across four corners of the modern nation-states of Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), Syria (Western Kurdistan), Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), and Northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), where the autonomous Kurdistan region is located. 

The scattered nature of their community has burdened Kurds in diaspora communities with a sort of double displacement: while they reside in a hostland far away, their homeland’s population is physically fragmented, and its existence attempted to be erased and denied. Second generation Kurds in the diaspora carry the weight of these circumstances as they grapple with defining their position in relation to their multiple identities. Their work pairs artistic expression with activism to create wider visibility of their homeland’s culture and struggle. 

Sayran Barzani (@sayran) is a Los Angeles based jewelry designer whose intricate pieces are inspired by her Kurdish roots and the regional Southwest Asian North African (SWANA) cultures while including a “western flair.” Her pieces combine geometric shapes and bright colors with traditional cultural symbols such as the evil eye, the Egyptian eye of Horus, and the Hamsa hand. She describes her jewelry as “where east meets west:” a notion she personally identifies with in terms of her cultural identity. 

Sayran found it challenging to understand her identity while growing up in America, and she felt equally alienated when going back to visit Kurdistan.

“I’ve been visiting Kurdistan for the past decade…the longest [visit] was three months when I was eighteen,” Sayran said. “The first time I went, [the experience] was in my face in a sad way. I was ready to come back here, and [I was] ungrateful of the experience. Looking back, that was the best experience I had and didn’t appreciate it.” 

Her feelings changed, however, when she revisited about a decade later in 2017: “I accepted [I’m] never going to be 100% like the people there, and never going to be 100% American, and accepting that allowed me to experience the country for what it really was.” 

While growing up in Dallas, Sayran and her sister were two out of the three Kurds in her entire school. She recalls the hurtful childhood experience of having to explain where she was from, only to be met with confusion from her classmates.

“I remember in fifth grade someone asked me, ‘where are you from?’ and I had to point because technically [Kurdistan] is not on a map, and they would say, ‘Oh, you’re from Iraq.’ I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t say it–I was such a shy girl–but I remember thinking, ‘No, Saddam Hussein almost killed my family [and] gassed my grandma’s village’,” Sayran said. “But as a child, you can’t put those things into words. As a kid, I was so desperate to see it on a map, I remember thinking at one point that maybe they spelled it wrong, maybe it’s Kyrgyzstan.” 

Jiyan Zandi is a creative director, artist, photographer, and founder of Local Brown Baby(@localbrownbaby), a media platform that celebrates cultural heritage, reclaims historical narratives, and tells the stories of empowerment through personal, local and global struggles. She describes her work at the intersections of content production, fashion, and lifestyle with both a social justice perspective, and a focus on cultural representation and celebration. 

Born to a Kurdish father and Mexican mother, Jiyan grew up in San Diego, Calif., another city with a large Kurdish community. 

Jiyan learned about her Kurdish heritage from her father. “The way [my father] taught us was through food, music, dance–through very vibrant culture references,” Jiyan said. “That’s the way that I got my Kurdish side; it was from a very artistic perspective.” 

One of the reasons for the creation of Brown Baby was to express the many dimensions of her identity through an artistic medium. “I didn’t really understand myself, and my art has always been that way of figuring it out and showing how I feel in my mind,” Jiyan said. “One of the photos I would take is me in a Kurdish dress holding a Hip-Hop magazine.” 

For Jiyan, self-portraits and art are a way of expressing the juxtaposition of the different worlds she navigates. 

“[For] my dad, his homeland is Kurdistan, and he’s here in the United States, and those are just two places he navigates,” Jiyan said. For her, the experience is far from binary: “You’re never Mexican enough, and you’re never American enough and you’re never Kurdish enough,” she added. 

  Through Brown Baby, Jiyan hopes to create a space for women who share this complex experience.

“You have to create the spaces that you wish existed, and that’s what Brown Baby has done. It [has] connected me with the right people who [had] similar experiences that I did growing up as a Kurdish girl in America–growing up with pop culture and being misunderstood,” Jiyan said. “I grew up with 90’s Hip-Hop but also my dad would tell me stories of his homeland and play Kurdish cassette tapes in the car. What do I make of all of that?”

Nuveen Barwari is an artist whose multidisciplinary work is also inspired by her heritage. Nuveen is an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the founder of Fufu Creations(@fufucreations), an apparel and art company. A native to Nashville, Tennessee, Nuveen is part of the largest Kurdish community in America. Growing up in Nashville and attending school for five years in Dohuk, Kurdistan, her identity is something that she describes as “continuously changing”. Throughout the years, she has come to identify as a Kurdish woman living in America.

“Growing up, I was thinking: wow, this is so cool, I have cousins that live all over the world, and I get to visit them,” Nuveen said. “When I grew up, I realized [that] this is not cool at all. We’re so displaced; the Kurds are scattered everywhere.” 

As these artists create work representing their diasporic experience and culture, they also garner inspiration from the incredible immigration stories of their families, who came as refugees to the United States in the 1970s. 

Sayran’s family came to the United States to flee the Ba’athist party’s Arabization campaigns, a series of violent raids throughout northern Iraq aiming to wipe out the region of non-Arab ethnic minorities. In 1974 her grandfather, Jamal Bekhtyar, painted a political poster about the tragic violence imposed on the Kurds by the Ba’ath party. “The Ba’ath party saw [the poster] and wanted my grandfather dead,” Sayran said. “They got him at some point, but he escaped jail and ended up getting shot in the leg.” Following this incident, Sayran’s grandfather fled Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, and traveled by foot to Tehran, Iran. Here, they lived in a tent for a year before receiving their paperwork for political asylum and relocating to North Dakota through a church sponsorship. 

The incredible experience of her family has led to Sayran’s own activism for the Kurdish community. Sayran launched an exclusive Rojava earring set with 100% of the profits going towards emergency aid provided by organizations such as Heyva Sor and the Lotus Flower. The funds aided the Rojava region in northeast Syria when nearly 300,00 people were displaced as a result of Turkeys offensive into northeast Syria in October 2019. 

Nuveen’s family were also made refugees as a result of the violence taking place in northern Iraq. Nuveen’s father, Muhammad Said Barwari, was part of Peshmerga, Kurdish guerilla fighters leading the rebellion against the Iraqi Ba’athist regime. Like Sayran’s family, Nuveen’s father also fled to Iran, unable to go back due to his political status as Peshmerga, and ended up coming to the United States in 1977. 

Jiyan’s father, Salah Zandi, immigrated to the United States as a political refugee in 1977. “Saddam Hussein promised he would give [Kurds] autonomy. He didn’t; he betrayed them,” Jiyan said. “During that time, my father had to flee to Iran with [Mustafa] Barzani.” Zandi was a Peshmerga fighter since he was 17 years old, eventually moving his way up to a political strategist. “My dad was [a] guerilla fighter in the mountains. They didn’t have a lot.” Jiyan’s father was later sponsored by the Agape Foundation and immigrated from Iran to New York first and eventually moved to San Diego.

Jiyan gains inspiration from her father’s incredible and arduous immigration story to uplift the Kurdish struggles for independence. 

“It’s a way of validating that we might not be on a map [and] the only thing you might hear on the news is about war and violence; but I’m here to show you that there’s so much more: there’s this beauty, there’s so much complexity, and there’s so much color to this world that you only know through this black and white media binary.” 

The validation of these stories is a powerful sentiment that resonates with Nuveen’s work as well. She explores this through the depiction of mobility between the United States and Kurdistan. 

“There’s a duality happening with the hot Cheetos [and rugs]. I think about the time and place[s] the hot Cheetos would travel from America to Kurdistan when I lived there. There is this cultural exchange happening. There’s this constant east and west exchange. I create a lot of these alternative borders in my work. Some [pieces] don’t have borders; [for those pieces] I’m leaving the borders open.”