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Western media is fascinated by the Kurdish women fighters who risk their lives in the fight against ISIS. Yet the hundreds of headlines and photos reveal little other than a homogenous conception of these women as glamorous gun-toting divas who are the harbingers of an “eastern” feminism. In imagining this iconic figure, the gaze of Western media has co-opted the fluidity of identity of Kurdish womanhood, and has subsumed a multiplicity of ideologies, experiences, and subjectivities into a static and totalizing signifier.
Not only does the icon of the fighter cloak the terror of war and violence with a romanticized narrative, it also discourages western audiences (spectators) from learning more about the historical and political contexts that have shaped global contemporary Kurdish issues (including but not limited to the ideological and political splits within the larger Kurdish community itself, Kurdish daily life in the diaspora, and the impact of conflicting Kurdish politics regionally and internationally).
Most disturbing is the way in which the warrior-diva icon gives way to reductive conversations and headlines that minimize the stakes of women bearing arms by suggesting it is merely a form of feminism. The fight against the Islamic State deserves to be considered in its full complexity—something made impossible by the propaganda-esque icon of the warrior-diva. The question remains: How does one go beyond icon in order to represent the complex realities of Kurdish women? The most ethical approach, it seems, is to simply un-work iconicity itself, and to lay bare the crisis of representation at its heart.
Rather than furnishing its own representations to combat those of the media, Un-Working the Icon: Kurdish "Warrior-Divas" instead draws into sharp relief the space that exists between representation and that which is represented. By playing with absence, anonymity, and non-figural renderings of womanhood, domesticity, and femininity the exhibition’s featured artists trouble the operations that result in the iconization of Kurdish women across global media, and they encourage a practice of active viewing/reading that turns audience members from passive consumers (i.e., spectators) into dynamic and socially responsible participants.
Sited in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin – home to the largest Kurdish population in the diaspora – the exhibition opens generative conversations about the political, social, and epistemological realities bound up in the mechanisms of identity formation for everyone.
Un-Working the Icon: Kurdish "Warrior-Divas" is a 2016-17 apexart Franchise Exhibition.