Interview with Piers Secunda

Ahead of the release of Piers Secunda's brand new print 'Mosul Museum', we caught up with the artist in his studio to discuss the stories behind his work, and his dangerous travels through Iraq, accompanied by military escort.

Your Cultural Destruction series saw you travelling to parts of Iraq during times of conflict- could you explain how this idea came about? 
The on going ISIS and Iraqi Kurdistan works (both drawings and relief works) which relate to the destruction of culture, have grown out of a an ongoing body of work which increasingly focus on what the destruction of culture looks like, when military equipment is used to delete the targeted material, sites, architecture etc. The first works I made along these lines were produced in Shanghai in 2009 and a second group of works using material from Afghanistan, in 2010. Since then the works have looked at the effect of violence on communities, traditions and ethnicities, as well as artefacts from ancient sites and Museums such as the Mosul Museum, which the Iraq Culture Minister gave me access to in 2018.

How did your trip to Iraq influence your practise? It must be particularly affecting as an artist to walk through a museum that has been deliberately destroyed.
I've made a few trips to Iraq to see what ISIS have done there and how the recovery is going. Each visit has been deeply impactful on me and my studio practice. Walking into the Mosul Museum was one of the hardest things I've ever done. After experiencing with all senses, what the deliberate destruction of culture is, with the intent to completely and totally destroy a slice of human history - yes there's no question that the path of my work is set for the forseeable future on examining the destruction of culture: what it means and what is says about where we are (or aren't) as human beings.

What were some particular difficulties you faced when producing this series of work? 
Getting consent for access to sensitive places can be tricky, until you meet someone who has the ability to say yes, and can shake their hand and explain face to face what you want to do. At that point, I've found that pictures of existing works on mine explain what a shaky translation generally can't. 
In Iraq I've had very high level support both from Baghdad and from the Kurdish Government, so access to key places has been facilitated in a very accommodating way, but you cant be certain of safety in close proximity to the likes of ISIS. For example, in 2015 the Peshmerga took me to see a few recently liberated front line villages, to the south-west of Kirkuk. We were mortared by ISIS in one of the villages and had to leave, which prevented me making as many moulds there as I would have liked. Fortunately we were less pressed for time in the other front line villages, so I was able to make more moulds in those, and returned home with what I needed. After the moulding we went for a kebab lunch in Kirkuk. A week later the street where we had eaten was car bombed, so timing matters.
On another occasion I had been given permission to make moulds in the ancient site of Nineveh, which is in the city of Mosul. An armoured car, which was leading our little convoy of vehicles, casually turned the wrong way down a busy motorway and we followed. Unlike in the movies, where people keep driving towards you, swerving out of the way, everyone on the motorway slowed down or stopped, out of our way, in the fast lane but I remember feeling quite alarmed at the prospect of going the wrong was down the motorway. It helps to have the military in front and behind you though.

You accompanied the Peshmerga military when taking moulds for your Cultural Destruction series- how did they react to what you were doing?
The Peshmerga are amazing people. They understood what I intended to make with the moulds of the ISIS damage, so we went directly to the front line. They couldn't have done anything more to accommodate me. Their absolute contempt for ISIS and complete lack of ego makes their determination and certainty of their actions very re-assuring. All the people I have met in Iraq have all been happy to help and to talk to me. It's because the works tell something of what they have experienced and lost. Local people are often emotional when they realise that someone took the time and risk to go there, and that the visitor wants to hear what happened.

Can you tell us about the process behind the creation of this drawing using the charcoal from the museum?
A large part of the Mosul Museum was set on fire by ISIS as the seige of Mosul started in 2017. The lower level of the Museum was being used to print their propaganda newpaper and before they fled, they torched that area of the building. Fortunately there were a couple of concrete walls which limited the spread of the fire.
When I was there in 2018 to make moulds of the smashed sculptures, just after the city had been liberated. After making all the moulds that I felt I could carry back to the UK, I started picking up charcoal from fires which had burned in the Museum. The Iraqi soldiers wanted to know why I was collecting the dirty charcoal, so I drew a Lammasu on the floor with a lump of charred wood. They all put their machine guns down immediately and started picking up the charcoal for me. We very quickly filled a few boxes, which I brought back to London.
To make the drawing for Migrate Art, I ground down the Mosul Museum charcoal and mixed it with alcohol and gum Arabic, to turn it into ink. The drawing was based on a photo of smashed artefacts inside the Museum and took about six hours to make. That work was auctioned at Christie's and is no longer in my posession but we used a printing system called 'Photogravure' to make an etching plate of the original image, using a JPEG file. The etching was then printed as an edition, using more of the Mosul Museum ink.

Are there any earlier experiences or influences in particular that have shaped your interest in the subject of cultural conflict and particularly, sites of cultural destruction? 
In 2001, whilst I was living in the Hudson Valley, to the North of New York City, I watched the Taliban destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas on the TV. I couldn't get the images out of my head. Then six months later 9/11 happened. I understood immediately that the intentions behind both events were ultimately the same - both were important iconic symbols, revered for very different reasons but which certain extremist religious practices couldn't abide. These actions affected me in such a way, that I knew they would find their way into my studio practice. It was just a matter of time for me to understand how. I didn't realise in 2001 that my studio practice would be taken over entirely by trying to understand what I had seen...
Seeing ISIS on the news, dynamiting and sledge hammering their way through ancient sites in Iraq and Syria was like being in a nightmare. After I had absorbed their footage from inside the Mosul Museum, I started making phone calls to try and arrange a journey to Iraq to document what they were doing. I knew that it was impossible to get to Mosul on the first trip, but I was determined to get there in time. 

You have produced and painted with inks from very interesting and unusual materials- how did you develop this process?
My painting practice has always treated the studio like an alchemists den, taking the paint for a metaphorical walk, to see what I can make it do. So it was natural to do the same with materials which could be converted into ink, especially if they were from a poignant place, or were the remnants of an important event which fitted into my work. In my studio there is a little area which I refer to as the "Ink Station" where I keep bottles of materials, which I grind down to make into inks. One ink which was especially successful was made of rust from one of the World Trade Centre (9/11) steel beams. I've been printing with crude oil for 12 years and drawing with charcoals from Iraq (ground down into ink) since 2015. 
When I was taken into the Mosul Museum in 2018 I was able to gather up some charcoal which I'm using to make Mosul drawings at the moment. One of the Iraqi soldiers asked why I wanted the charcoal, so I drew a Lammasu on the floor and then dropped the remaining piece of charcoal into the bag. Immediately several of the soldiers were gathering up the charcoal and filling the bag. I'm glad to say that I have plenty of it!  

Is there an overall message that you hope your audience takes away when they see your work?
I'm trying to make an account of what it feels like as an artist to experience these things. The maximum value is what people learn about themselves through experiencing these works. Some people get very emotional, others find them compelling and return to buy one because they cant get the work out of their head, and people don't experience that too often in such a starkly market driven world. I would like to mention, that for each of the ISIS works which gets sold, a percentage of the sale is sent to a Kurdish Orphan charity called Kind Aid, which works specifically in the area of the villages which I visited in Iraq 2015.

Are there any locations you are hoping to go, but have been unable to visit so far?

Yes, I would like to like to visit Timbuktu, in Mali, where Islamic Fundamentalists burned ancient libraries and smashed up shrines. Mali is a key in understanding Africa's relationship with Fundamentalist Islam. I had an opportunity to go there but the timing clashed with a what turned out to be a key visit to Iraq and now Mali is back in the depths of religious violence, so I have to wait for the tide to change on that project...

What are your thoughts on the relationship between Arts and Heritage and social change? 
Social change happens one person at a time and is usually the result of a specific type of education, the type where people are forced to form an opinion and defend it. There have been a couple of occasions when my work has been used as an educational tool. This is really rewarding for me because as I mentioned earlier, the maximum value that can be had from these works is what people can learn about themselves through experiencing them.
In 2018 I was asked to put on an exhibition of ISIS works as a collaborative project between the Iraq Embassy in London and the Kurdish Regional Government UK office. The exhibition happened at the Iraq Ambassador's private residence. The two sides really didn't know each other before hand and had briefly been at war earlier in the year. Thankfully the project was a huge success and the exhibition was extended for a year. I saw both the Iraqi Ambassador and the KRG High Representative at a number of events together subsequently, so any one who tells me that art cant help facilitate social change, needs to get out of their bubble.

Piers' new etching, titled 'Mosul Museum' is released at 4pm on Wednesday 31st August, and can be found here.