Culture, conflict and a cat
Ph.D. grad’s research probes Kurdish culture
KENNESAW, Ga. (May 7, 2018) — Autumn Cockrell-Abdullah says jokingly that one of the best outcomes of her year working and doing research in Northern Iraq — known as Kurdistan — is the street cat she rescued on a Halloween night, named Boo, and brought home to live with her in the U.S.
Some of her colleagues and professors in the Ph.D. in International Conflict Management program, from which she will graduate on May 8, might disagree. Some have suggested that the research Cockrell-Abdullah conducted for her dissertation, titled “Art & Agency: Transforming Relationships of Power in Iraqi Kurdistan,” contributes new scholarship and understanding of Kurdish identity through art and culture in the face of the region’s long, complex history of conflict.
“Despite the Kurds’ role in some of the most critical conflicts in the Middle East, even today in the fight against ISIS,” Cockrell-Abdullah says, “most of the world lacks an understanding of the complex, multi-layered cultural impacts of the socio-political factors inside Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Violent conflicts in Northern Iraq like the Anfal campaign near the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and the 1991 uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s regime led to tens of thousands of Kurds being killed and more than two million displaced. In the wake of those conflicts, Cockrell-Abdullah’s research seeks to use art to expose and examine what she says is “a bubbling pot of social issues that lies just underneath the skin of inter-Kurdish tensions.”
In four visits to the region from 2013 to 2017, she has discovered voices among contemporary visual and conceptual art and artists that point towards cultural and structural forms of violence within Kurdish society that could create conflict. They are voices not reflected in what Cockrell-Abdullah calls “the deeply entrenched political rhetoric of a nationalist narrative.”
Her research also examines the place of culture in conflict and conflict analysis, and how meaning is made and translated into ideas and behavior, potentially producing moments of conflict.
"Autumn’s dissertation is a good demonstration of what visual arts reveals about conflict – more specifically about the struggles of a minority group like the Iraqi Kurds in a post-conflict period," said Debarati Sen, associate professor of anthropology and conflict management and Cockrell-Abdullah’s dissertation chair. “Her research contributes significant scholarship on an important topic that has received little attention.”
As one of three to receive the Ph.D. in International Conflict Management this spring, Cockrell-Abdullah, who has taught anthropology part time at Kennesaw State since 2009, joins 24 other scholars to complete the program since it began in fall 2010. She is among the first to complete it in 3 1/2 years, however. That is in part because she came into the program “knowing early on what I wanted to do and knowing the professors I hoped to work with me on the research.”
Hesitant to accept that some have called her work “groundbreaking,” Cockrell-Abdullah, is certain almost no literature on contemporary Kurdish art in Iraq exists.
“Just Google it,” she urges. “I simply had to go there to do fieldwork because the research demanded it.”
As a cultural anthropologist who has spent time doing research in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, Cockrell-Abdullah’s interest in culture as a window into identity-formation was well established. During her studies for a master’s in cultural anthropology, which she received from at Georgia State in 2002, she says a light bulb went on as she investigated representations of Arab-American identity.
“I think that there was probably such a moment when I realized this idea that identity is mostly constructed and man-made. That was so interesting to me because, I thought, if identity is constructed, then it can be deconstructed and you can remake it into something else.”
Cockrell-Abdullah’s scholarly interests and personal life intersected as she continued her work into issues of culture and identity in the Middle East, teaching for a while at Georgia Perimeter College and later working for the Middle East Institute at Georgia State. In 2006, she married Meriwan Abdullah, a Kurdish artist and a refugee who was among the first wave of Iraqi immigrants to arrive Atlanta in 2000 as the city evolved to become the first point of embarkation for many immigrants to come.
While visiting her in-laws in Sulaimani, Kurdistan, for the first time in 2013, Cockrell-Abdullah said she was struck by what she perceived to be a disconnect between the broad traditional and nationalist themes pervasive in much of the art displayed in galleries – images of the land and its people, often in conflict, suffering through war and genocide – and what she saw and heard on the streets.
“In conversations with extended family and friends, and with writers, painters, visual and performing artists, and in the tea shops, they’re talking about corruption among the leadership, about the system of patronage that underlies everything,” she said. “So, you start looking at the nuts and bolts of how a painting gets made and how it makes it to a particular gallery. And if you follow that, you begin to see what messages are being patronized by the elite. But what’s more interesting is what’s not getting patronized – what voices are not being heard.”
Enrolling in the Ph.D. program in 2014, Cockrell-Abdullah said her challenge was to make art, anthropology and conflict “talk to each other.”
“I saw on the program’s website that there was a focus on ‘preventing, managing and transforming conflict,’ she recalled. “From what I had learned, I knew that [focusing on] the contemporary and conceptual art emerging in Northern Iraq was a way to get past the stories about ISIS, and past the Kurds as victims of genocide, and all the usual tropes.”
Instead, Cockrell-Abdullah said she examined art and artists to get to something that was more “on the ground,” more revealing of how people were living their lives on a daily basis, something that may not reflect the published history of conflict there.
“Kurdish independence doesn’t answer all the questions about why they do what they do there, “she said. “Looking at their art at the level of culture, of meaning-making, shows a perspective that you don’t see – that there is an urban, middle-to-upper-middle class element in Kurdish society that is looking beyond the political and looking deeply at the very foundations of social and cultural institutions, questioning constructions of gender, for instance, and other established norms and values.”
Cockrell-Abdullah views her work there to date as a beginning, and she hopes to return to Kurdistan to continue it, and perhaps to eventually write the first art history book devoted to its contemporary arts.
When she does return, she says she is destined to join the “nascent movement” for animal rescue there.
“People think of conflict in lots of ways, but we forget how conflict impacts our environment and the other non-human lives around us, who are deeply impacted by the same conflicts.” she said. “What rescuing Boo and bringing her home to America represents is the fact that I had the ability to directly impact one of God’s creatures for the better.”
— Sabbaye McGriff
Photos by Lauren Kress
Video by Rob Witzel
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 35,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university's vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. A Carnegie-designated doctoral institution, it is one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.