Profiles on Practice: Khadija Baker

By Nadia Kurd

Khadija Baker. “Birds Crossing Borders.” 2018. Photo Courtesy of Artist.

In 1987, Chicana poet and feminist Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, “a borderland is a vague and undertermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.”[1] Born in the Northern Syrian town of Amûdê‎, Montréal-based multidisciplinary artist Khadija Baker fully understands this constant state of transition as her birthplace sits uneasily between Syria and Turkey. “I always saw the border in Northern Syria in the Kurdish region where I was born as a tool to divide and stop the fluency of daily activities,” reflects Baker.[2] 

As an artist, the border, both as a metaphor and the actual division between nation-states has long informed her approach to art making. Baker reflects that she has, “developed various ways to reflect on the re-creation of what we can literally and conceptually call a map in my artwork…[in my work], the border is a developing, changing form that can reflect our connection and comfortable daily lives and can also respond to human needs.”[3]

However, Baker’s work is not only informed by her lived experiences as a Syrian Kurd, but also the current events and Kurdish oral storytelling traditions. For example, in My little voice can’t lie, (2012/2019), Baker sits motionless on a plinth, with small speakers braided into her long hair. Gallery visitors can approach Baker, take hold of a braided plat and raise the speaker to their ears. What they will hear are the recorded stories of displaced women from Kurdish, Palestinian, and Persian backgrounds. Here, Baker’s body becomes the medium for these narratives, collapsing the distance between the women’s stories, the artist and the audience.

Khadija Baker. “My little voice can’t lie.” 2009, 2012. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The multimedia installation Behind Walls (2008/2017) looks at the systematic program of renaming of Kurdish places in Northern Syria since 1962.[4] To visually acknowledge this history, Baker made 80 clay spheres that are connected by a mesh of strings suspended overhead. These strings are spun from clothing and combined with sand to create an altogether web-like formation. An audio soundtrack that accompanies the installation and audio soundtrack of recordings by Kurds living in Montreal. Fading in and out, is a projection onto the clay spheres also reveals the Arabic names—directly onto the names of Kurdish places which have been inscribed in the clay. Viewers can walk through the work and reflect on the impact of a forced map on the daily lives of stateless Kurds—ultimately, to show audiences, as they move through the installation, “the arbitrary nature of maps and history, the fragile nature of memory, and even the interconnectedness of a diaspora scattered across the globe.”[5] 

Khadija Baker. “Behind Walls.” City Hall, Karsh-Masson Gallery, 2008,2011. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

In another installation, Birds Crossing Borders (2018), Baker weaves together a complex assemblage of water filled and tube-connected Plexiglas boxes, video and live performance. One Plexiglas box is filled with tinted water, and with the connecting tubes, transports its contents to the next box, and so on. The eventual transference of colour serves as a metaphor for both migration and adaptation. Moreover, the videos that document the stories of Syrian refugees surround the linked containers, further emphasizing change and movement. In this project, Baker asks, “How will the host society own the collective memory and generate the sense of understanding? How will it grow more familiar with the newcomer?” In the installation space, the viewer is confronted with these questions, but more importantly, they are asked to examine disconnect in humanistic values that separate the refugee from the citizen.

Khadija Baker. “Coffin/Nest.” 2007, 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Coffin/Nest (2007-2019) take up borders and displacement in a much more personal and material way. Using recycled clothing from friends and acquaintances, Baker weaves a circular nest around herself. Surrounding her woven fabric nest, are long, life-sized bundles of fabric, which mimic a cocoon or womb (or alternatively, body bags). As Baker weaves, she becomes fully immersed in her protective nest, and each time this work is performed, the final outcome manifests in different ways. The work examines on the difficult history of systemic mass murder and burial of people in northern Iraq (mostly ethnic Kurds, but also Shia Muslims), and how the only way to identify human remains was through articles of clothing.[6] The self-made nest also acts like a shelter – Baker enfolds herself within this history in a way to commemorate lives lost and to also recognize survivors.

An intuitive process guides much of Baker’s work, and she often relies on stories and materials to guide each project. “I work against a specific methodology,” notes Baker, “my work reflects things I have witnessed and lived.”[7] In other words, in each of her projects, Baker researches, embodies and pushes the narratives she gathers. Varied and never totally finished, her multidisciplinary performances and installation works are highly emotive and fused with a lived, collective sense of pain and mourning. Baker’s art channels and comes to terms with the current turbulent history of Kurdish displacement through performance and storytelling. By placing herself publicly at the forefront of this lived reality, Baker seeks to present and visualize not only her experiences, but also the humanity of Kurdish people.

Since completing her MFA (Fine Arts) in 2012, Baker has remained a core member of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University (Montreal). A participant in numerous international exhibitions and residencies, Baker’s work continues to articulate the story of forced displacement and struggles especially women and children who face violence around border issues in all its aspects. Her life and work straddles place, language and belonging – all borne from cruel necessity to preserve Kurdish life. The precariousness of life also echoes the poetic words of Gloria Anzaldúa when she writes:

This is her home

            this thin edge of

                        barbwire.

To see more of Khadija Baker’s artwork and upcoming projects, visit:  http://khadijabaker.com or follow her on Instagram @bakerkhadija

Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan  (Edmonton, Alberta). Her work can be found on www.nadiakurd.com.


[1] Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (aunt lute press: San Francisco, 1978), 25.

[2] Baker, Khadija. “Imagining Borders” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2016), 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] As Human Rights Watch reports, “In 1962 the government carried out a special census in al-Hasakeh province in northeast Syria on the pretext that many non-Syrian Kurds had crossed illegally from Turkey. Kurds had to prove that they had lived in Syria since at least 1945 or lose their citizenship.” This evolved into land expropriation and a process of “Arabization” of the region. For more on this history, see: “Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria,” Human Rights Watch (2009) https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/11/26/group-denial/repression-kurdish-political-and-cultural-rights-syria

[5] “Artist Spotlight: Khadija Baker’” Aesthetica Magazine https://aestheticamagazine.com/profile/khadija-baker/ (accessed 25 August 2020).

[6] Artist website, http://khadijabaker.com/index.html.

[7] Artist interview with the Author, 2020.


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