Artists are motivated to produce their work for myriad reasons. Few would take the risk of travelling to one of the world’s most dangerous places to do it. But for British artist-cum-sculptor Piers Secunda, a trip to the frontline of the fight against Isis was essential to his work.
Secunda travelled to Iraq’s frontlines with Isis to take highly accurate casts of holes made by the extremist group’s bullets. On his return to the UK, he laid the moulds into reliefs of ancient artworks from the region, creating the disturbing impression they had been shot at.
“The intention behind the work is to make a record of the industrial scale destruction of culture,” Secunda says. In his view, the scale of the extremist’s “absolutely unprecedented” cultural ransacking was “too significant not to record”.
When the thugs of Isis ran rampant across Iraq and Syria in 2014, their campaign not only destroyed lives but also historical artefacts. Now defeated in Mosul, and on the retreat in Raqqa – Isis’s two main urban strongholds – the group’s systematic campaign of destruction has been greatly diminished.
But in the miserable years when their rule seemed untouchable, the extremists carried out some of the most dedicated cultural vandalism ever recorded. The ancient gates of Nineveh near Mosul, Iraq, and the temples of Palmyra in Syria, were obliterated.
“It’s very calculated and extremely targeted,” Secunda says. “The intention is to erase history.”
Isis’s Salafi-jihadi interpretation of Islam regards venerating any other deity than Allah as sinful, prompting the use of sledgehammers and dynamite to destroy shrines, tombs and other ancient structures.
Secunda thinks it is also a controlling tactic. “If you delete the history that existed before you, it’s impossible for people to understand who they are except off the back of what they are right now,” he says.
Secunda, who has previously worked in Afghanistan and the slums of Jamaica, was so moved by the destruction he decided his art had to reflect one of the great cultural catastrophes of our time. He went to northern Iraq in late 2015. From the city of Kirkuk, he travelled with the Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers to the recently liberated villages of Tel Arabaa and Abu Hamed.
The moulds, for which Secunda used a forensic quality substance called Alginate, were cast in holes shot into the side of a school by Isis fighters. He worked metres from unexploded mortar rounds and the carcasses of dead militants.
Back in his London studio, Secunda set the moulds into casts of ancient Assyrian and Mesopotamian carvings. The results, made entirely from paint, are a stark metaphor of the cultural vandalism wrought by the extremists.
“These Isis bullet hole paintings are not only expressive of an ongoing tragedy but will act as an important record for the future, to remind people of the industrial scale destruction of Kurdish culture occurring at this important moment in time,” said Dr. Mohammed Shareef, of the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.
He continued: “I strongly believe the Kurdish people, myself included, are grateful that these atrocities are being recorded for a Western audience, that otherwise never get to see it in such detail.”
And does Secunda plan to continue in this hazardous line of work? “I don’t see myself stopping,” he says. “I can’t switch off the interest. I feel compelled to do it because it’s important and necessary.”