Bahjat is a Kurdish visual artist who works with mixed media, mainly drawing, photography, and video installation, in order to listen to peoples’ stories and try to create a platform for debate around the issues raised. His work raises questions about identity and people’s position in the world.
‘I have been working with the notion of identity for many years since I first found myself in a state of exile trying to gain recognition by the Immigration system in the UK. It has been over thirteen years since I left my native land, Kurdistan-Iraq.
I’ve often been asked for identity pictures for the various types of ID cards I was required to have and I now own a collection of “self-ID pictures”. My work developed directly from an investigation into the use of these ID cards, what they say about people’s origins, and how these people are ultimately presented at the end of the governmental process.’
‘I try to question the effects and the outcomes of this systemic categorization. It is shocking to see how codes and numbers classify and shape us within a system that, to us, is almost invisible. It is quite surprising and rather fascinating to see that we expect ID photographs to be a true reflection of who we really are, when in fact they only represent a superficial side of our identity; our physical appearance. However, this process of categorisation extends beyond the Immigration services and other governmental departments. The desire to reduce a person to only their photographic image is widespread.’
– Excerpts from his personal website.
In this video Behjat sketches a portrait of his mother:
There have been many waves of emigration from Iraq since the end of the 1970’s. These emigrations have taken place for various reasons: the war with Iran from 1980 to 1988 and the Gulf War in 1991 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the occupation of Iraq by the US the UK and their allies from 2003 – 2011 and subsequent sectarian violence.
A climate of constant insecurity has led to massive population displacement. IOM estimates that there are some 1.9 million Iraqis displaced internally, and over 2 million in neighbouring states, particularly Syria and Jordan.
Kurds from Iraq have a long history of persecution which has led to emigration outside the country. Saddam Hussein launched a plan to destroy Kurdish villages in 1988, attacking many villages, notably Halabja which caused thousands of casualties and 60,000 refugees. There was another wave of Kurdish emigration after a failed uprising in 1991.
In May 1997, Tony Blair’s Labour Government came to power on the back of a campaign promoting ‘New Labour, New Life for Britain’. The refugee housing and destitution crisis led to a Labour review of the asylum system, resulting in the publication of a 1998 White Paper ‘Fairer, Faster and Firmer – A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum’. The Labour Government spoke of ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’ but continued with a rhetoric of distinguishing ‘genuine’ refugees from ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. This paper formed the basis of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1999; this strengthened existing procedures, alongside introducing major innovations in the separation of asylum seeker support from mainstream welfare provision. The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) was created to administer the new system.