Jala Wahid Exposes Imperialism’s Coverups, Sarah Jilani, δημοσίευση ArtReview [27/2/2023]
The artist’s work speaks to how imbalances of industrial power and wealth have shaped all of our lives
An eternal flame burns in a field near the city of Kirkuk, an area disputed by Federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. Known as Baba Gurgur, or the ‘Fiery Father’, in Kurdish, the field yielded its black gold to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company at 3am on 15 October 1927, when its drilling unleashed a 42m fountain of oil into the air. Bringing this historic moment to life acoustically in Jala Wahid’s new exhibition Conflagration, at the Baltic in Gateshead, is a series of spoken and sung exchanges. “I do not care under what system we keep it, whether it is by perpetual lease or whatever it may be, but I am quite clear that it is all-important for us that this oil should be available,” proclaims Wahid’s disembodied voice, quoting a self-assured letter written by a British colonial officer of the time. “Mercurial land / Trembling beyond reach / Doesn’t care what you mean / When you use words like sovereignty,” answers another voice in an elongated, funereal melody: it seems, almost, like the Fiery Father’s chastisement of the British.
A collaboration between British-Kurdish artist Wahid, singer/ composer Amal Saeed Kurda and sound producer Owen Pratt, this multilayered
soundscape, Naphtha Maqam (2022), is a haunting work that weaves together the history of European and American oil imperialism in the Middle East, the destructive effects of extractive practices on the natural world and Kurdish myth to create an aeffectively charged series of maqams, or melodies. The ‘naphtha’ of its title can mean any of various volatile, highly flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixtures, but is the name the oil tapped at Kirkuk was given in British colonial records. The officialese of Wahid’s voiceover, which underscores the arrogant ignorance of an imperialism that thinks it can master nature without consequences, clashes pointedly with the poetic lyrics that she has written for Kurda’s expressive voice.