In the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) resides a remarkable artist whose creativity transcends borders. Shanaz Jamal, an artist, fashion designer, and advocate for recycling, has emerged as a local sensation and gained international recognition. Her journey has been defined by her dedication to preserving Kurdish heritage, promoting religious tolerance, and conveying powerful messages through her art and fashion.
Her artwork can be found in homes, cafes, and government buildings, including the White House. When top foreign officials and dignitaries visit the KRI, Kurdish officials gift them with Shanaz’s artwork.
Kurdistan Chronicle recently met Shanaz in Sulaymaniyah to discuss her upcoming projects and her meeting with Pope Francis.
One pivotal moment that propelled Shanaz into the international spotlight came in 2019 when she met Pope Francis at the Vatican. The catalyst for this recognition was the making of a robe adorned with symbols representing the eight religions in the KRI: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Mandaeism, Yarsanism, Zoroastrianism, the Baháʼí Faith, and Judaism.
Shanaz explained that her original plan was to create eight pieces of art representing all the faiths in the KRI, with the intention of uniting their representatives within a mosque or a church and gifting them these artistic embodiments of unity. A friend's suggestion, however, reshaped this vision to combine the eight works and incorporate other Kurdish symbols into a single robe destined for Pope Francis.
It took Shanaz 19 months to finish the robe. Its back was embellished with 5,000 beads and precious stones, each representing a life lost in the tragic chemical attack in Halabja. On the front, 182,000 beads and stones represented the victims of the Saddam Hussein regime's genocidal atrocities against the Iraqi Kurdish population from 1983 to 1988.
In addition, the robe was elegantly embroidered with religious symbols such as the cross, the crescent, Zoroastrianism’s winged emblem, the Star of David, and the sun and temples revered by the Yezidis. These collectively captured the Kurdish people's enduring spirit and unwavering faith despite relentless persecution.
Meeting Pope Francis was a dream for Shanaz. “I could not believe it when I received the invitation. I met his holiness and put the robe around his shoulders; he was impressed by its beauty and all the symbols on the robe,” she recalled.
Shanaz's artistic journey is deeply intertwined with her love for Kurdish culture. She draws inspiration from traditional rugs, carpets, and clothing, aiming to transform them into artistic expressions that echo the rich heritage of her homeland. Her childhood memories of her mother sewing Kurdish women's attire and her grandmother crafting handmade klash – a kind of traditional footwear – from cotton fabrics and cowhide have left an indelible mark on her creative path.
“Through my art and fashion pieces, I want to show the world the Kurdish culture, its beautiful designs, the ability of Kurdish women, and the importance of religious coexistence in the Kurdistan Region,” she explained.
Shanaz believes she must act as a cultural ambassador of the KRI, stitching together stories of peace and diversity.
She also stated that she is currently working on a project to create art for several world leaders.
“There are some messages I'd like to convey to some world leaders, but I'd like to convey them through art,” she said, declining to specify what kind of art she intends to make or to which world leaders she will give them.
The project is in the motion, and Shanaz hopes to travel soon to Europe to meet the first of the world leaders.
Meanwhile, she hopes one day to be able to open her permanent gallery in Kurdistan to the public.
“I want to establish an international Kurdish brand for clothing, women's accessories, and recycled arts made from rugs and carpets embellished with precious stones and beads,” she said.
She also encourages the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to establish cultural centers within KRG representatives to familiarize the world with Kurdish cultures and arts and provide an opportunity for Kurdish designers to introduce their work to the world.
The KRG has 14 international offices – most notably in the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Iran – and none of them has a cultural center.
Besides working as artist, Shanaz spends her free time volunteering at prisons in the KRI to support inmates.
Shanaz donates some of the money that she earns to organize music concerts and film screenings inside prisons, as well as workshops teaching inmates how to make women's bags.
“I just want the inmates to see some of the good things that are going on outside the prison walls,” Shanaz said.
Qassim Khidhir has 15 years of experience in journalism and media development in Iraq. He has contributed to both local and international media outlets.