Iraq heritage: from the cradle of civilisation to the vortex of destruction

British artist Piers Secunda  hopes the Iraqi education system will encourage the teaching of cultural history.
Sunday 03/11/2019
Piers Secunda works on moulds of damaged artefacts in Mosul museum. (Courtesy of Piers Secunda)
Reviving heritage. Piers Secunda works on moulds of damaged artefacts in Mosul museum. (Courtesy of Piers Secunda)

LONDON - The detrimental effects of heritage destruction on humanity were the focus of an exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum that covered a period from World War I to the Islamic State’s devastation of cultural sites in Iraq.

“Culture Under Attack” involved three themes: “Rebel Sounds” concentrated on four cases of musical defiance during conflicts. “Art in Exile” revealed how cultural artefacts in British museums and galleries were evacuated and protected during the second world war. “What Remains” examined how damaging the loss of heritage is for humanity.

“What Remains” started with Zeppelin raids in the first world war, the German blitz and continued through the Islamic State (ISIS) destruction of Mosul. A striking feature of the exhibition is British artist Piers Secunda’s two-piece work “ISIS Damage Painting (Genie).”

Having studied at the Chelsea College of Art, Secunda has produced a vast number of engaging works, including elaborately detailed crude-oil paintings and a wide range of projects investigating destruction of culture.

With the help of previous Culture Minister of Iraq Fryad Rwandzi, Secunda visited Mosul in 2018 and documented devastation by ISIS inside the Mosul Museum.

He said he made moulds of sculptures ISIS damaged using alginate, an elastic hydrocolloid impression putty often used in dental practices.

“The advantage of using alginate is that it is very greasy and does not stick to surfaces,” Secunda said in a telephone interview. “I simply mix the alginate using my hands and then secure the material on to the surface that I am interested in. The moulds are then placed in a plastic bag, which I carry back to the UK.”

Because of the importance of artefacts in the Mosul Museum, Secunda stressed that he used a different process, developed by a Tate conservator, to make moulds of the “Genie” head.

The process involved painting water-based latex paint on areas Secunda wanted to mould. When the paint dried, he placed dental putty on top so the latex would dry and transform into a very thin film. The process does not detract from the granular level of the mould that he makes.

The latex allows separation between the sculpture and the dental putty, which means that, when the dental putty is pulled away from the sculpture, there is no trace of its existence having been there.

Secunda recalled his visit to Mosul Museum in a concerned and remorseful tone. He said his biggest surprise while walking through the museum was not seeing many artefacts because ISIS had looted the museum and sold or destroyed the pieces.

Speaking with Iraqi soldiers who accompanied him to the museum, Secunda said it appeared that many large artefacts, such as the winged Lamassu, were broken to pieces and dumped into the Mosul River.

The artist recounted his visit as a “very emotionally loaded situation of damage.” “The reason is that, in the Western world, we consider culture to be increasingly important and an interwoven part of our lives,” Secunda said.

Video recordings of ISIS gunmen smashing ancient artefacts were deeply distressing for people living not only in the West but also in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

For those detached from the distress that others felt and still feel, Secunda said he hopes his work will demonstrate “what has happened and what the smashing of objects was all about.”

The artist emphasised the pivotal role of education in raising the awareness of future generations on the importance of cultural heritage. “The destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria was a direct result of education failure,” he said.

Secunda explained that, if ISIS recruits had been educated about the significance of preserving and protecting cultural artefacts and sites, it would have been far harder for ISIS to destroy the sites.

Secunda said he hopes the Iraqi education system will encourage the teaching of history and cultural history so students understand why damaging cultural heritage threatens not only international peace and security but humanity as well.