ArtsConflictCultureMiddle East

Through Destruction Comes Rebirth: Reconstruction Of Destroyed Heritage Comes To Light In Malmö Konsthall’s Newest Installation

Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist, (Room G, Northwest Palace of Nimrud, Panel 21. VERDEC collection, Belgium / Photo: Nick Ash

The birthplace of our civilisation, the beginning of one of the oldest societies, of Sumerian and Babylonians, the land of Iraq, is destroyed. In 2015, videos posted by ISIS shows ancient sculptures – one of the world’s oldest artifacts – smashed by hammers to pieces in the Mosul Museum and northern Iraq. The international community reacted vocally against the damage and motivation behind ISIS’s action. But since then, little has been discussed on the impact of the destruction and the process of reconstruction. Michael Rakowitz, an Iraqi-American artist, recall the destroyed heritage in his exhibition, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Room G), at in Malmö Konsthall. 

Nineveh, one of the oldest cities of Mesopotamia and one of the most important cultural centres in the ancient world, was destroyed by ISIS when they took over the city in 2014. Hatra, capital of the first Arab Kingdom, was destroyed by sledgehammers and automatic weapons that barbarically demolished sculptures in the site’s largest buildings. ISIS cruelly bulldozed parts Nimrud, the first Assyrian capital. Those are just a few examples of places and heritage sites ISIS destroyed during 2015 and 2016. At the time, the images of destroyed artifacts and historical sites shocked the international community and made headlines across the world. 

“In front of something like this, we are speechless,” said Kino Gabriel, one of the leaders of the Syrian Military Council – a Christian militia – “Murder of people and destruction is not enough, so even our civilisation and the culture of our people is being destroyed”.

This destruction is a form of  war crime against the people of Iraq, said Irina Bokova, the UNESCO Director-General “heritage is a symbol and medium of identity, history and memory. [The destructions]are also attacks against the humanity we all share, against the values of openness and diversity of this region, as the cradle of civilizations.” Bokova concluded that the destruction is used as a tactic of war and is part of strategic cultural cleansing. The international community and scholars questioned the motives and forms of propaganda behind these actions, for example as Zainab Bahranin, the Edith Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology at Columbia University, who claims that “ .. the aim here was an ethnic cleansing. And it many cases, really, it’s a form of genocide”.

According to Qais Rasheed, Iraq’s Vice-Minister of Culture for Antiquities and Tourism Affairs, violent extremists destroyed up to 70% of Nineveh and 80% of Nimrud. “Was it their dogma, religious reasons, that motivated them? asked Michel Al-Maqdissi, researcher at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and former Director of Excavations and Archaeological Studies. From his perspective, one part of such  destruction was to send a message to the West: “Because you hold these things to be dear, and because you consider them to be part of world heritage, we are going to upset you, we are going to attack you by destroying these monuments”.

The destruction of artifacts and historical sites are the worst cultural heritage emergency since World War II. In response, UNESCO has started a program to reconstruct and rebuild the destroyed heritage. The reconstruction will take many years and some question whether it is possible to reconstruct what has been lost. The reconstruction will take many years and some question whether it is possible to reconstruct what has been lost. However, as the debate continues, ISIS is still the inspiration for global jihadist movements around the world and it is likely that new movements will emerge and emulate its model. Including more attacks on heritage sites. Therefore, it is necessary that the international community reopen discussion and awareness of common history and acknowledge the shared responsibility of the protection of heritage sites.

Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist, (Room G, Northwest Palace of Nimrud, Room G-24). Courtesy of Elie Khouri Art Foundation / Photo: Robert Chase Heishman

There is an urgent need for a global conversation about our lost heritage because if the heritage will not be protected what will future generations learn from empty landscapes and smashed pieces of sites that were once upon a time a significant part of our common history? To bring the conversation back to life, one might start with searching for wider understanding of such issues in places where heritage was destroyed; in art, galleries and museums.

Michael Rakowitz, the Iraqi-American artist, brought destroyed Iraqi heritage back to life, or at least, their ghosts. Rakowitz and his team are working on recreating up to 8 000 historical objects that are still missing from the National Museum of Iraq and the devastated archeological sites that were destroyed by ISIS. His ongoing show The invisible enemy should not exist started in 2007 and is now exhibiting in Malmö Konsthall*

The reconstrued sites and artefacts that were destroyed, lost or sold are made from recycled oil cans mashed together and from colorful food wrappings from the Middle East. Underneath these commonplace objects that once contained candy or food, they represent the emotional attachments and memories of a whole culture. One can find that the artworks symbolize reconstruction of heritage but also, a protection of culture as a whole. “Is not necessarily about replacing what is gone but looking at the measurement of each of those objects, and reconstructing them by the materials of cultural visibility” says Rakowitz.

Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist, (Room G, Northwest Palace of Nimrud, Panel 19. Courtesy Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin / Photo: Nick Ash

The context of the artwork challenges our view on how one can bring the destruction to life and challenges an understanding of reconstruction itself. The physical reconstruction of an artefact or site that was once destroyed might not rebuild its historical development of culture that has been part of an object and now was destroyed with it.
In fact, for each destroyed object, artefact or sites, the destruction itself becomes part of their identity, their own history. Reconstructing them to its original form would hide the current historical mark of war that is also a signature of our time. For the destroyed heritage is essential to acknowledge the reason why they were destroyed and what that symbolize for the object today. Therefore, such a reconstruction of heritage is also part of our cultural and represent the history we have created for the next generations.

To some, it might seem misguided to focus on heritage, art and historical sites when people lose their families and homes in a war or due to current environmental disasters. Of course, these are issues to look at first when it comes to rebuilding and reconstructions. However, destroyed heritage, the landscape and historical sites is one way of destroying people, their history and future. Therefore, it might be difficult to separate them two. When people return to their homeplace, to their land from war or after an environmental disaster, it is important that people return to their history, culture and heritage.

Laura Blažková

* Malmö Konsthall exhibits part of the large exhibition called The invisible enemy should not exist (Room G). The exhibition is now open and ends on the 12th of January 2020. Entrance is free of charge.

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