Jala Wahid Laments Man-Made Ruin in the Middle East

At Baltic, Gateshead, the artist’s first solo institutional exhibition examines the pernicious effects of Britain’s oil interests in the Kurdistan Region

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BY Rosalie Doubal in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 12 DEC 22

This pared-back installation has the feel of a deconstructed stage play. In place of actors, three new artworks perform a lament within a dramatically lit, maroon-painted set. Baba Gurgur (all works 2022), a monumental sculpture, holds centre stage. Naphtha Maqam, a sound work interlacing Kurdish melodies with English vocals, unfolds plot and song over the course of an hour, while the light work Sick Pink Sun (03:00 14.10.1927 –) illuminates the installation with its unchanging fuchsia spot. Set within an eternally burning fire – in a time that is at once past, present and future – the players of Jala Wahid’s epic ‘Conflagration’ keen the futility of destruction havocked in the interest of politics.

These works speak to the history of the oil industry in the Middle East, continuing the artist’s ongoing investigations into her Kurdish identity. Specifically, they witness the pernicious effects of Britain’s oil interests in the Kurdistan Region. Baba Gurgur is an incarnation of an oil gusher of the same name situated in Kirkuk, a region disputed between Federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. This work symbolizes a crucial moment in the relationship and ongoing conflicts between Britain, Kurdistan and Iraq. Its 1927 discovery sparked the creation of an immensely influential oil cartel that afforded Britain and other Western colonial states a monopoly over oil in the Middle East. 

Jala Wahid
Jala Wahid, ‘Conflagration’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and BALTIC, Gateshead

Wahid’s towering sculpture takes the form of the salvia spinosa flower, a species endemic to the region. In borrowing the pearlescent shell common to modified hypercars, often paraded by the super-rich, Wahid’s statuesque resin fibreglass bloom has a contemporary look. Its seductive surface chameleonically shifts from blue to purple and lime-yellow to gold. In adopting this finish, the artist equates this gusher with outlandish displays of opulence, astutely drawing the history of oil into direct relation with present-day ultra-wealth.

Reflected on the curves of Wahid’s monumental flower, Sick Pink Sun (03:00 14.10.1927 –) comprises a large, yellowing-pink spotlight that looks like the sun as if seen through toxic smoke. By casting humanity’s lifeline as diseased, the artist brings additional gravity to this exhibition. Although its title documents the time of the field’s 1927 ‘discovery’, this site held significance for many millennia prior to its drilling. At its heart sits a naturally occurring fire. Alight for more than 4,000 years, this symbolic wonder is deeply impressed in the culture of local people. There’s an acute poetry to Barbur Gurgur’s smokeless eternal flame. In contrast, Wahid’s smoke-choked sun talks of warfare, pollution and the far-reaching devastation caused by oil-driven conflicts.

Jala Wahid
Jala Wahid, ‘Conflagration’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and BALTIC, Gateshead

Completing this ensemble is the stereo sound work Naphtha Maqam. This fuses Kurdish melodies with texts found in the British Petroleum archive documenting the drilling of Baba Gurgur. Read by the artist, passages regale at length the virtues of British Imperialism, pronouncing ‘permanent British control’ of the oil in Kirkuk as a ‘vital national necessity’. Woven throughout these malign documents are cello, violin and vocals by contemporary Kurdish singer Amal Saeed Kurda. Performing funereal maqams written from the perspective of the flower, the land and the oil, this haunting piece is fearful and pained, and prophesizes profound sadness on behalf of a landscape for whom nationalism is worthless. In one wrenching maqam, the oil of the future begs to be reburied, keening ‘sepulchre me, sepulchre me, sepulchre me’. 

Wahid’s deeply moving lament denounces man-made ruin when performed in the name of nationhood and political posturing, spotlighting a landscape that can no longer endure. Her craft is seamless, and this theatrical installation’s elemental nature belies the complexity of the history it ragingly tells.

Jala Wahid’s ‘Conflagration’ is on view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art until 30 April 2023

Main image: Jala Wahid, ‘Conflagration’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and BALTIC, Gateshead

Rosalie Doubal is a writer and curator based in London, UK

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