Within the wide breadth of destruction left in the wake of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), the group’s agenda of eliminating cultural heritage struck a particular nerve for those watching the horrors unfold around the globe. While Da’esh’s horrific treatment of Iraqis and Syrians is not to be understated, the organization’s active decision to cleanse Iraq of its diverse, multifaceted, and irreplaceable artifacts of cultural history flies in the face of human decency and a collective sense of progress; we gage the advancements of our collective human society by understanding our origins and beginnings. In a more formalized sense, these acts also violate UNESCO’s Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and our codified international understandings of historical preservation.
In the shadow of Da’esh and its upcoming inevitable defeat in Mosul, however, members of the global artistic community have sought to preserve, recreate, and re-engineer elements of the Tigris River Valley’s millennia-old artistic tradition.
Last month in London, Michael Rakowitz unveiled his vision inspired by the destruction of Ninawa in the form of his new piece, entitled “The Invisible Enemy Should not Exist.” The artwork, a sculpture of the winged bull Lamassu, is a recreation of a sculpture that “stood at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh from 700BC until it was destroyed by the extremist group in Mosul’s museum.” Its recreation, however, is in many ways a somber reflection of a legacy that can never be recovered – Rakowitz’s statue will be made from dated syrup tin cans instead of the original’s marble to demonstrate Iraq’s industry having been “destroyed, like the bull, by war.”
Despite this somber overtone, not all artists subscribe to such a macabre perspective. Nino Thabet, an 18 year old Iraqi artist who studied art at Mosul University, recently started to craft miniature replicas of statues destroyed by Da’esh, such as Lamassu, in nearby Erbil. Thabet is not so naive as to suggest that his art makes up for the “antiquities of [his] country, a civilization that is thousands of years old,” but states that his art sends a global message that “we want to rebuild our civilization and continue to grow artistically.”
Across the Atlantic, Samar Abdulrahman, a refugee settled in Kennewick, Washington, finds a personal connection to her family and Iraqi heritage through art. Separated from her brother, Omar, who is also an artist, Abdulrahman paints pictures that connect her new life in the United States with imagery of the Baghdad of her childhood, and in turn, with her brother who still resides there. Her paintings are reflective of both the beautiful country she was raised in, and of the promise of family reunification and a future that is “happy and safe.”
While the artwork of Rakowitz, Thabet, and Abdulrahman reflect differing viewpoints and memories of recent Iraqi history, they more importantly echo the endurance of Iraq’s artistic and cultural legacy, one that extends beyond antiquity and into an infinite, as-of-yet-unwritten future. In this continuing heritage, it reaffirms the urgency of protecting and preserving Iraq’s cultural record, one that is still under threat of extinction, while we, as a global community, still have the opportunity. Their artistry is a testament to the influence of an Iraqi cultural legacy that resonates the world over, reverberating outwards from the headlines we read, the art we preserve, and the stories its refugees tell.
By Connor McInerney