Historical moments, art, tradition and documented text are among some of the most important pieces of culture and how we understand the past today. Piers Secunda, is a historical cultural restorative artist and sculptor who recreates damaged and or destroyed pieces of history. This includes a wide array of objects and structures that range not only in size but also in location.
Piers’ most recent work revolves around Mesopotamian artifacts and various structural pieces. In the same vein, Piers has also recently had a piece go up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England on permanent display.
Taking moulds in the ISIS desecrated Mosul Museum, 2018
Could you tell me a bit about yourself and what led you to an artistic career?
I was born in London in 1976 and decided after visiting a Van Gogh exhibition in Holland when I was thirteen years old, that I was going to be an artist. I think my family didn’t realise for quite a long time that I was serious, after all, what does a thirteen year old know? I studied painting at Chelsea College of Art and Design between 1995 and 1998. The BritArt moment was happening, so it was a really exciting time to be in London.
Without our ancestors and all that they have done to preserve the history and culture of their people, we wouldn’t have the same understanding and appreciation of where we come from that we do today. How did the creative and decision-making process occur, which led you to work on the destroyed sculptures of the Mosul Museum?
I had been making work about the deliberate destruction of culture for many years before ISIS started tearing up the Middle East. My focus on the destruction of culture started when I saw the TV footage of the Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, six months after 9/11 happened. Part of the intention of ISIS’ actions in destroying Ancient sites, Mosques, Libraries, Churches and Museums, was to delete the past, so that it could be overwritten with their own narrative. As we all know, Iconoclasm was also part of the exercise, but built into this was a desire (like 9/11) to do it in a spectacular way, to draw others of their type, out of the woodwork to join them. There was also a desire, again within their narrative, to take apart the imagery and symbols of the “Nation State” The reasons for this are rather different but it explains why they went to such great lengths to mutilate Lamassu sculptures, since these are so deeply connected to the Assyrian, modern Iranian and Iraqi national identities. A side effect of all of the above, as you mention, is that deleting the past severs people from who they are. All of this drove the need that I was feeling, to document what was happening.
When you are working in your studio on these cultural symbols and reproductions of antiquities, is the use of traditional techniques, such as how you produced ink making charcoal powder with a pestle and mortar and then mixing it with alcohol and gum arabic, important to your work?
In the Victorian era, archaeologists made many exceptional moulds of ancient reliefs and sold plaster casts of them. Many of these Victorian reproductions and contemporary casts of them are commercially available. When I cast ancient reliefs, merging the damage made by ISIS (bullet damage, pneumatic drill damage from inside the Mosul Museum etc) to produce my works in the studio, I’m casting from high grade reproductions, made many years ago. When I want to draw, I try to first find a material which I can turn into an ink, which will bring some resonance of the original source location into the work. For example, in 2018 when the Iraq Culture Minister Fryad Rwandozi allowed me into the Mosul Museum to mould the damage made by ISIS to Assyrian reliefs, I also collected a box full of charcoal. The ISIS fighters had set fire to a part of the Museum and the charcoal remained. This makes a fantastic ink, if it's ground down sufficiently and mixed with alcohol and Gum Arabic in the right proportions. This ink is significant for me on many levels, partly because it allows the destroyed artefacts from the Mosul Museum to tell the tale of their fate at the hands of ISIS and of course it has a fabulous quality to it as a material.
Middle East Room, ISIS Damage Painting, Ashmolean Relief, 2021
You seemingly use photos and various hand drawn media forms in order to accurately make work which merges the past and present. What does the process of finding and using referential media for your work look like?
When I can’t find reproductions of relief sculptures from the cultures which I am making works about, I’ve made 3D models, using published archaeologists drawings of Assyrian sculptures found at Nineveh and Nimrud, in Iraq. The particular reliefs which I used were inside the Mosul Museum when it was destroyed and there are a few photos of them, so the combination of these two sources of data was enough to remake the reliefs. This is exciting because this way of working is new as of the last few years and holds a lot of promise for the future, as a system to document damaged sites, using pre-existing records such as tourist photos. So the remaking of the destroyed objects can generate a resource as well as studio material.
In what ways has this project included the communities involved, if at all. In what ways has it not?
When I sell works related to ISIS, I return a percentage of the income to the Kurdish Region, by making a donation to Kind Aid, a very small and direct orphan charity, operating in the area which includes the villages (which were on the front line in 2015) which were amongst the first which I visited to make moulds of ISIS damage. Kind Aid provides orphaned children a safe home, food, clothes, an education and in time vocational training. I can’t think of a more direct way to give back to a place which has undergone such trauma, than to help local children.
When covering topics, projects and commissions alike, what practices do you use in order to thoroughly listen and internalise communities and or community members voices and hardships in order to better your work?
It would be impossible to make works about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq without getting involved in some way. So I don’t tend to consider the risk, I just go and see what’s happening. I want to be able to talk to local people to try and take in what they have to say. What happened? How did it affect you and your family, your friends and kids? Where did you have to go? How did you find food? When did it start and how... I ask endless questions in an attempt to pick up patterns in peoples experiences and take in as much detail as I can. Often I record or film people if they are comfortable with that. If it’s a war zone, people are almost always relieved that someone from the outside has arrived and wants nothing more than to try and understand what is going on. I’ve never had anyone tell me that they don’t want to talk. Almost without exception they start telling me what they endured, and then they can’t stop. Almost as though it’s an opportunity to get it off their chest. The experience for many people, telling an outsider what has happened to them, all the people around them, their community, the region can be a deeply emotional experience. Because I don’t represent an organisation and am there as an artist, people open up and tell me what they went through. They know that if their experience or something emotive about the violence and pain gets inside me, they have sent a message in an artistic bottle, which will be displayed in a new way and to people who, as my friend Sardar Ahmad Khan (who was executed by the Taliban along with his wife and children in Afghanistan in 2014) used to tell me, a few times a year: “Keep making it, people are not coming here to see it, keep showing the art to people, don’t stop.”
Mosul Museum Interior, 2019
Finding a platform that can help amplify the voices of a marginalised community can be extremely difficult. Do you believe that the Ashmolean Museum will help and or continue to focus on the perspectives of community members going forward?
The Ashmolean is a remarkably progressive organisation, led by people who are eager to bring the voices of their visitors into the galleries. This is an amazing thing to watch. In developing the exhibition Owning the Past : From Mesopotamia To Iraq the Museum established a way of working with local Iraqi and Kurdish people, that absorbs their voices and concerns into a project with such seriousness, that the title of this exhibition changed three times. Each change represented a searching move deeper into the narrative that the Iraqi and Kurdish communities wanted to vocalise about their history, at the hands of the British colonial powers. I’ve never heard of anything like this before. Several months ago, I invited the Culture Minister, Minister Whittingdale, to the Ashmolean to see the exhibition and attend a round table chat with the Iraqis, Syrian Kurds and Yazidis. He came along and it was a huge success. His eyes opened to what they had to say in a way which I think will not be easy to undo. I cannot see the Ashmolean reversing their programme at this stage. It’s surging forward at full speed.
The intentional removal and destruction of culture unfortunately still affects many nations and peoples around the world even to this day. What advice and or insights do you have to share on this matter? What are some ways we might prevent these kinds of acts in the future?
There are two predominant types of destruction of culture: 1 Through construction projects and development of land. 2 Though extremist ideologies. The scale of cultural destruction through construction projects is mind blowing. It’s about arrogance and greed. These two things, I can’t help you with, I don’t have the answers… When it comes to the destruction of culture through the actions of extremists, I can offer what I have learned: I am a very sincere believer that a certain type of education is what has been missing, when extremists start damaging people and culture(s). That type of education failure is a lack of teaching that trains people to read between the lines, think for themselves, form an opinion and defend it. Learning by blind repetition never helped anyone beyond a test result. If someone can only tell you when something happened, as opposed to being able to explain why, then they haven’t had an education. Teaching by asking people to justify themselves and to test their beliefs and be tested within their beliefs, builds the education that the people need, so they cannot be easily led, which serves to protect them and the people around them. Greed and arrogance undo this because these qualities tend to move people’s attitudes towards dictatorial behaviour.
Who and or what has been your primary inspiration throughout your various projects?
The people who I meet. Some are long running friends now. Some of them have come to England and a few have come to my flat in London, to eat a meal with my wife and I. Those people are the real gold of these experiences. Totally priceless. It’s the human connection, that’s what matters in the long term. The works of art come into existence and hopefully they fulfil me artistically, but I look at the art when it’s finished and I see the people who were there. Those experiences and those people can never be taken from me.
and now you now have a work on permanent display within the Ashmolean…
That’s right, I was commissioned to make a two part work which merges the Ashmolean Museum’s Assyrian relief, with moulds which I took in 2018, of ISIS damage to sculptures in the Mosul Museum. The work is in the Ashmolean’s new Middle East gallery and hangs alongside Assyrian reliefs, from Nimrud and Nineveh. It’s a fantastic honour to have my work in that location and in immediate proximity to such significant Assyrian and Mesopotamian carvings.
Piers Secunda, ISIS Damage Field Installation, Ashmolean Relief 2020
Having spent so much time and creative energy making work about culture of the past, what has your experience with your own identities and culture been like throughout your life?
I am exploring two areas of my own heritage now as I work on a current project… My father's family were Russian Jews, who came to the UK in the 19th century, a few more arrived to London from Russia in the 1930’s. I know very little about them and what brought them to the UK in the 19th century, but I do know that they settled in east London and worked in the silk trade. It's taking a lot of research to uncover their story... On my Mothers side I have learned a lot in the last few years about my maternal grandfather, who was a founding officer in the 101st Airborne ‘Pathfinders’, who parachuted into the Cherbourg Peninsula the night before D-Day, to set up beacons which guided in the paratrooper planes at first light, when the D-Day invasion started. They were fired on from Alderney (The UK Channel Island) in the last minutes of their approach to their drop zone which was around a mile away from St Mere Eglise. Both these sides of my family, the Russian Jews and the American WW2 paratrooper, merge as inspiration in the current project, in which I’m discovering what happened on the Island on Alderney during WWII. German guns fired at my Grandfather's plane on the night of the 5th June 1944 and at the same time, the Germans were using Russians and Jews on Alderney as slave labour and killing a lot of them… it’s going to be a huge project with a lot of deeply revealing information, all of it previously totally unknown, about what occurred on Alderney during the war…
Community engagement media (whether it be journalism, physical and digital based artwork, hosted events, etc.) have been on the rise as of late, do you find that your work reaches the communities involved when put on display through exhibition and or installations?
It’s often very hard to reach people thousands of miles away, and I certainly hope that the work carries a message that they would be approving of. I try to involve the opinions of people through social media and by asking local press to look, and consider covering exhibitions. My work has been on the Kurdish TV station Rudaw many times, as well as Al Jazeera and in The National Newspaper. So through those voices, there is often an opportunity to hear what some people in local communities in Iraq think and feel about what I’ve done, to acknowledge what they and their cultures had endured.
In your current projects including: Owning The Past: From Mesopotamia To Iraq, And Yet We Rise: 20 Years of Remembrance and Reflection of September 11th at the US embassy in London, your work varies in visual aesthetic, however it primarily focuses on cultural and sociopolitical themes. Do you plan on continuing to focus your work within this field of study? And if so, is there a specific time period and or location that you would like to cover in the future?
I think that as time moves along, I will continue to make work about the destruction of culture, both historically and as it happens in the present day. Whilst I am seeking to understand and make work about ISIS in its new forms, both in the Middle East and Africa, I am still holding moulds of bomb damage made during WWII to London and Berlin Museums, and seeking to make work with those. Equally, as I mentioned above, the Alderney project is really important to me for many reasons, least of which is that the Germany occupiers of Alderney shot at my grandfather's plane the night before D-Day, from gun emplacements built by Russian and Jewish slave labourers, amongst others, forced to work on the Island. Clearly I have my work cut out for me!!
Do you have anything else happening in the immediate future which you have not told us about?
Since the Autumn of 2020, I’ve been making ink from the rust from a 9/11 steel beam, to make drawings. I’m drawing from photos which were commissioned from photographers in Abbottabad in Pakistan, where Bin Laden lived and died. I asked the photographers to take pictures of the interesting natural features in the vicinity of the Bin Laden House – the ancient trees, the fields, harvests etc. Three of the drawings are being shown in the US embassy for the 9/11 20th Anniversary. It’s the only 9/11 exhibition which has been sanctioned by the state department. The U.S. Secretary of State is involved and very much supporting the project. It will open to the public just before 9/11 and remain on view until January 2022.
Piers Secunda, ISIS Damage Field Painting, Ashmolean Relief, 2020
911 Steel Beam Rust Drawing (Potatoes) 2021
911 Steel Beam Rust Drawing (Abbottabad Ancient Trees) 2021
Mosul Museum Interior, 2020
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