As Isis swept the Levant like a rash in 2014, its fighters wrought destruction, not just on human life, but on cultural life too. The ancient sites of Palmyra, Ninevah and Nimrud were among those vandalised because they deviated from Isis’s vision for an ultra-conservative Islamic state.
Artists around the world were shocked by images of defaced statues and mutilated paintings. For one, the “wholesale destruction of culture” was disturbing enough to motivate him to take a risk few other artists would.
Piers Secunda is a British painter-cum-sculptor who decided to travel to the Kurdish frontlines of Iraq to “bring the noise of the world” into his studio. Instead of painting what he saw, Secunda took highly detailed casts of bullet holes shot out by Isis guns. On his return to the UK, the moulds were laid into other casts based on ancient artworks, creating the unsettling impression they have been shot at. The resulting 13 works, currently on display at the Jaeckel Gallery in New York, are a unique metaphor on the cultural vandalism perpetrated by Isis.
“In destroying these early pieces of culture, they’re disassembling and dismantling our genetic cultural DNA,” Secunda tells The Independent. “They’re deleting history.”
Conversely, Secunda believes the most significant work an artist can create is something which produces a statement about the world or creates a record of it. “I’ve always felt I was unable to make a statement because there’s always somebody in the world somewhere else who knows better,” he says. “So I felt quite clearly that the thing that I could contribute was a record.”
Secunda’s casts are made entirely from paint, which he says felt limiting to use just on canvas. “I wanted a more organic system of painting, where the material could continue to grow,” Secunda says. “I wanted to take the paint for a walk and see what more I could do with it.” Bullet holes were a “natural extension” of previous work, in which he sometimes destroyed paint models didn’t like in order to reuse the material in new projects.
Having a long-standing interest in geopolitical violence – and previously casting cast bullet holes in Jamaica and Afghanistan – Secunda was moved to take his work to a new level. Through a friend, Secunda made contact with the Kurdish PUK government and arranged to visit the war-torn region of northern Iraq in late 2015. He went to Kirkuk and travelled with Peshmerga soldiers to the recently liberated nearby villages of Tel Arabaa and Abu Hamed.
In Tel Arabaa, a school had been occupied by Isis and used as an ammunition dump, making it an important target for the Peshmerga. “They told me how they shot from one direction towards Isis, which meant the single building that remained was damaged on one face by Isis bullets and on another face by their bullet damage,” Secunda says. “And therefore, if I worked on that particular part of the building, I would be moulding Isis bullet holes.”
It takes up to 10 minutes to make a mould, for which Secunda employs a substance called Alginate, commonly used by dentists. “The result is a record which as accurate as it could possibly be,” he says. He collected 30 moulds in total, varying in size from around an inch to four inches.
As Secunda worked, just metres from unexploded mortar rounds, the rotten smell from the nearby corpses of Isis fighters drifted into his nose.
He made around 15 casts in Tel Arabaa before travelling onto the centuries-old settlement of Abu Hamed. As Secunda worked on other bullet holes, he was disturbed by an explosion from the road his party had travelled on, prompting an early leave. A smoking crater marked the tarmac as the group drove to a frontline Peshmerga base, where poorly armed troops faced off against Isis fighters 150 metres away.
On returning to the UK, Secunda created moulds of a number of ancient Assyrian and Mesopotamian artworks to perforate with the bullet holes. He also chose art from further afield, in order to demonstrate the far-reaching shockwaves of Isis extremism. The decision to use a cast of St George proved especially prescient -- a church of the same name in Egypt was bombed by Isis earlier this month.
Creating the final pieces was extremely challenging. Secunda explains: “When you interact with a figurative work to make a hole through it, you can quite easily eradicate anything about it which makes it interesting or understandable. So I had to be pretty careful where I placed the holes.
“I noticed if I left an eye exposed it still had some human or animal content left – there was something there you could emotionally touch as a human. If I put the bullet holes in the wrong places, if the composition of them looked contrived and didn’t heighten the intensity of the image, it really killed it off.”
Despite the unusual task Secunda carried out, his project was well received by the people most affected by the violence he seeks to document.
“As they’ve learned of what I’m doing, everyone in Kurdistan, and in the Kurdish Regional Government in Washington, have been very enthusiastic,” he says. “They understand it shows people see some of the damage they wouldn’t see unless they go there.”
Dr Mohammed Shareef, lecturer in Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Exeter, says the project is “not only expressive of an ongoing tragedy" but would also "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”.
He adds: “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.”
A response any artist would be proud of, no doubt. But why did Secunda take so much risk to create his work? He explains: “Hearing continually about what Isis were doing – destroying some of the most important ancient sites in the Middle East – on this industrial scale was probably as significant as anything else you could experience in a lifetime in terms of destruction.
“Therefore, it had to be recorded. I couldn’t not do it.”
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