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Iranian sculptor builds statues for humanity, not auctions

For over four decades, Iranian Kurdish sculptor Hadi Ziaoddini has sought to keep his art human and untainted by profit and politics.

"When we all witnessed the inexplicable resistance put up by those Kurdish women in northern Syria as they were driving out the Islamic State [IS], we were all stunned and perplexed," said Kurdish Iranian artist Hadi Ziaoddini of how he was inspired for one of his widely admired sculptures, "The Lioness of Kobani."

Ziaoddini unveiled the work (pictured below) in November 2014, following two industrious weeks at his cozy workspace inside the early 19th century Khosro Abad Mansion, a national heritage site in the western Iranian city of Sanandaj, 250 miles southwest of the capital Tehran.  

"I felt the urge to express my own admiration … [at] the bravery and heroism of an army entirely shaped by those courageous women standing up against the most vicious terror group ever created by politicians," he told Al-Monitor.

Portraying a Kurdish woman in guerrilla uniform, "The Lioness of Kobani" represents all the female fighters, who were engaged in relentless counterattacks that ultimately broke the IS siege on the flashpoint Syrian city of Kobani in January 2015. Looking resolutely on the horizon, the fighter is sitting on the back of a lion, the epitome of valor in Kurdistan and the wider Middle East.

"I can't simply sit back in the face of unfolding human catastrophe," Ziaoddini said, noting that he was particularly moved by the plight of women and children. This plight was the key impetus for another sculpture, "Shengal," the figurine of a grieving mother and her baby. The name is the Kurdish version of Sinjar, a district in Iraq's Ninevah governorate, where thousands of women and children from the Yazidi minority fell captive to IS militants as they were fast sweeping swaths of territory across Iraq in 2014. The terror group's systematic abuse of Yazidi girls and women was part of what the United Nations has designated as "genocide" and a campaign aimed at annihilating the minority community. 

"We know hundreds if not thousands of Yazidi men were also killed there. But it was the pain of those women and children at the hands of the merciless militants that haunted me," Ziaoddini said in his interview with Al-Monitor. 

The 63-year-old sculptor said he has done his best "to stay committed" to his people throughout his career and the notion of "art for art's sake" is but a stranger since he has "human and social responsibilities," which he is proud of having fulfilled. Proof to that, Ziaoddini said, is the warm welcome he receives from ordinary people when they communicate with his art. 

In mid-November, Tehran's Saba Art Gallery showcased some 400 pieces of his sculptures, works on canvas and a variety of other sketches. "A Spanish woman was moved to tears looking at those pieces" in his latest exhibition, he said, adding that this happens in many of his exhibits from the United Kingdom to Switzerland and from Kazakhstan to China. "Take the example of [Pablo] Picasso's anti-war painting 'Guernica.' A Syrian man who has felt the pain of war to his bones can easily connect with 'Guernica,' because it communicates a shared human concern," he noted about art that goes beyond national borders.

The "Lioness of Kobani" sculpture, which symbolizes Kurdish women who fought IS militants. Credit: Hadi Ziaoddini 

Ziaoddini's growing tendency for the human side has increasingly detached him from politics. The biggest threat modern art is grappling with, he believes, comes from "the politics of art," which "promotes the interests of a powerful few" by sidelining original and independent art. "But regardless of how noisy their voices are, they won't defeat genuine art, which rises from the heart of the creator and ultimately sinks in the heart of the audience," the Iranian sculptor stated. He lamented the fallacy that success in art is achieved only if one blindly follows the Western agenda. "Honest art is on the right side of history, while art for politics and business has an expiry date," he asserted.

From Ziaoddini's point of view, original art can never be compromised with mainstream international trends, which are bound to set the criteria. "My criteria are my concerns for my people and humanity. I don’t really care what is in vogue and what the rates are at Christie's, for instance."

In his voluminous portfolio, the prolific artist has unveiled statues of at least 23 notables from the history of Kurdistan, Iran and the world, including India's liberation icon Mahatma Gandhi. The pieces are known to almost all Iranians in cities such as Sanandaj, Mahabad, Qazvin and Mashhad as well as to his fellow Kurds in neighboring Iraq. Most notably, the city of Sulaimaniyah is home to his 26-feet high portrayal of Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji, the leader of a 1920s popular Kurdish uprising against the British Mandate in Iraq. 

To the artist himself, the one sculpture that has never ceased to amaze him is the "Statue of Freedom," which has over the years turned into the landmark of his hometown, Sanandaj. "It is a package of visual elements that invoke a sense of pure freedom in the human mind, I'd say some absolute airiness," Ziaoddini said. "Although I created it 25 years ago, that piece has only consolidated its palpable presence," he added, referencing a description by prominent Iranian playwright Qotboddin Sadeqi in praise of this artwork. 

Thanks to his refusal to be subservient and his constant dynamic "reevaluation" of his career, Ziaoddini has no intention of retiring from "diligent" work. "As I don’t have much time left to my life, I will have to uncap what stays in my heart."

He has been handling art "with extreme care because otherwise it quickly turns heartbroken and simply stops talking to you. Treat it with dishonesty, and it will never attract the eyes." When the purpose is profit, he said, "art will be but self-destructive."

Ziaoddini noted that he had rejected with "no hesitation" but with "all due respect" a whopping order from overseas to build a statue of the leader of a wealthy Persian Gulf state. "I have always been vigilant not to be tempted by such offers. They will taint my art. Kings come and go and could be brought down sooner or later, and so will be their statues. So how could I possibly be happy to see my sculptures nosedive from the top of squares?"

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