As artist Ramzi Ghotbaldin sees it, life is like gardening.
“When you plant a plant, you don’t know if it will bear fruit,” the former Kurdish resistance fighter observed at the recent opening of the Foundry Gallery exhibit “Colors of Kurdistan.” A gardener has to wait patiently for any harvest, Ghotbaldin continued. And, during that waiting period, he noted, “It makes a difference how you do the watering!”
Both Ghotbaldin and his countryman Sardar Kestay have invested enough time, energy and courage in their creative fields to reap a harvest of international recognition.
Originally from the Kurdish region of Iraq, both live abroad and have exhibited their work in multiple countries.
Ghotbaldin, born in 1955, was involved for years in the Kurdish resistance to Saddam Hussein’s regime. He subsequently moved to France, where he still lives.
Kestay, born in 1973, has pursued a dual career track as an artist and a caricaturist. He lives in upstate New York. The “Colors of Kurdistan” exhibit, showcasing work by the two men, is presented by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s diplomatic mission in the United States.
Relying on a friend to translate his Kurdish into English for the benefit of a reporter, the graying but boyish-looking Kestay said he moved to the United States only recently. In his native land, some of the caricatures he had contributed to periodicals were considered insufficiently respectful of Islam. His critics “made my life a little difficult,” so he relocated, he explained.
He’s still sending cartoons back to the Kurdish press. At the gallery opening, he proudly pulled his Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate card out of his wallet to show it off.
What inspires his pen these days? He’s doing a lot of caricatures about the Islamic State, he said cheerfully.
But Kestay also paints, often working dimly perceptible female shapes into rainy sheets of strong color on his canvases. The colors allude to the bright-hued clothes that Kurdish women tend to wear, he said.
The references in his paintings to women’s experience, he added, is an acknowledgment that “probably three-quarters of the work in our society is done by women.”
Kestay radiates a rather impish vibe. By contrast, Ghotbaldin — who resembles a more svelte and handsome Gerard Depardieu — exudes intensity.
Speaking in French, the older artist recounted that when he lived in Kurdistan, his work often dealt with violent events, such as massacres. But his move to France produced a change in his sensibility. Toward the beginning of his stay, when he was very poor, a Catholic charity gave him a loan so that he could buy art supplies.
“That touched me a great deal and helped me love France,” he said.
French scenes and vistas gave him new feelings about light and spatial composition. “I observe; I admire; I participate in the country — the country which has given me opportunity,” he said.
He is particularly fond of Normandy and its “beautiful scenery.” Not surprisingly, the names of Normandy towns turn up in a couple of the impressionistic, blue-green-dominated works he’s exhibiting at the gallery.
The exhibit of Ghotbaldin’s and Kestay’s work has arrived in Washington at a time when news reports often mention the Kurdistan region and Kurdish fighters in relation to the incursions Islamic State militants have made in Iraq.
Najat Abdullah, who is director of community and culture for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s U.S. office, says the exhibit allows visitors to glimpse another aspect of the Kurdish experience.
“We want to show the other side of Kurdistan, let Americans know we have artists — globally and in Kurdistan — who can compete with artists around the world,” he says.
An eye-catching throng is praying in the Washington National Cathedral’s north nave side aisle. Motionless human figures in different colors, some decked out with curious accessories, stand, sit or kneel, seemingly in contemplation or spiritual appeal.
The crowd is, in fact, the Sixth Interfaith CARAVAN Exhibition of Visual Art, organized around the theme “Amen — A Prayer for the World.”
A nonprofit organization founded in Cairo in 2009, CARAVAN aims to use the arts to build bridges between faiths and cultures in the East and West.
For this exhibit, 30 Egyptian artists and 18 artists from the United States, the United Kingdom and France were given life-sized fiberglass sculptures in four prayerful poses.
The artists — whose backgrounds are Christian, Muslim and Jewish — decorated the shapes as they saw fit. (A previous iteration of the exhibit opened in Cairo in June; after its Washington sojourn, this version will travel to New York City’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.)
Hamdy Reda, who lives and works on the outskirts of Cairo, produced a black kneeling figure wearing what appear to be a black gas mask, black safety goggles and black ear protectors.
The work is meant to be a meditation on the fine line between peaceful behavior and passivity. (The artists’ statements about their pieces appear in nearby frames.)
Other works look more hopeful.
Egyptian artist Marwa Adel’s standing female figure has porcelain-like skin decorated with ornamental flowers and cupids; a more realistic drawing on her stomach depicts a child in a womb.
Paris-born artist Lilianne Milgrom’s contribution is a white winged angel whose chest bears a QR code that allows the viewer to send a digital prayer.
The exhibit expresses “a very important message” about the need for understanding “between East and West and all religions” and the fact that there is “one world for all people,” says Egyptian artist Reda Abdel Rahman, who co-curated the exhibit with CARAVAN’s founder and president, the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler.
Speaking from New York, where he is based while on an artist’s residency, the co-curator added that whether one is an adherent of a specific faith or is secular, the bottom line is that “we have to do good for others.”
Ramzi Ghotbaldin and Sardar Kestay: Colors of Kurdistan. On view through Sept. 28 at the Foundry Gallery, 1314 18th St. NW; 202-463-0203; www.foundrygallery.org.
The Sixth Interfaith CARAVAN Exhibition of Visual Art. Through Oct. 6 at the Washington National Cathedral, 3103 Wisconsin Ave. NW. www.oncaravan.org.
Wren is a freelance writer.