They wrought death and destruction in one of the world’s most heavily armed nations, but as the specter of war recedes in Iraq, four students are turning scrap from old guns and munitions into symbols of hope.
In a display of industrial war art in Baghdad’s green zone, a sculpture of a fish is made out of bullet casings; a flower is shaped from the twisted remains of a machine-gun barrel; another depicts the Greek god Atlas holding a wooden map of Iraq instead of shouldering the weight of the Earth.
The show is the work of graduate students at Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts.
“It’s a message to the world that these pieces of equipment that bring death can be turned into things of beauty,” said artist Ahmed Imad Aldeen, 27, at his small workshop in the fortified government and diplomatic compound.
“It’s also an appeal to Iraq and the rest of the world that enough is enough. Enough of the killing,” artist Ali Hamid Mohammed said.
The group of four students joined forces last year to create the pieces, which are being displayed in a small room next to a green zone live shooting range.
Many of the dozens of sculptures for sale are abstract, but others, like a version of the famed bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti, are immediately recognizable.
“When I see each weapon, they speak to me and tell me what they should be,” Aldeen said.
The idea of turning munitions into art was first proposed by Zahim Jihad Mutar, head of a non-government Iraqi armament disposal group.
Mutar, 57, a veteran of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, runs the Iraq Mine Clearance Organization (IMCO), a US State Department and UN-funded group that destroys more than 600 weapons a day.
Sick of the destruction that guns and bombs had inflicted on his country, he began IMCO in late 2003. Then he hit on the idea of turning weapons into art as a way of coming to terms with the past.
The former Iraqi army soldier approached the students last year and agreed to provide them with a place to work as well as supplies of scrap metal from destroyed Chinese and Russian AK-47s, mortar tubes and grenade launchers.
“These weapons for killing people — I wanted to change them into symbols of love, freedom and life,” the former mine specialist said. “These destroyed guns have a message for all people, that art can bring peace.”
Mutar’s firm operates throughout Iraq, destroying weapons confiscated from militants by the US military, deactivating mines and helping train the Iraqi army in mine disposal techniques.
Long before the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to depose president Saddam Hussein, the dictator who formally came to power in 1979 had turned the nation into one of the most militarized countries on earth.
IMCO estimates more than 25 million mines are buried in Iraqi soil and 3 million tonnes of unexploded ordnance blight nearly 10,000 communities. After 20 years as a soldier in Saddam’s army, Mutar said he felt compelled to try to decommission the very weapons he helped to put in place.
“In 1993, I saw a family killed by mines in Basra — the mother and her three children. Locals there asked me to help, and when I began to look around, I found more mines and more people telling me about mine accidents,” he said. “It was then that I decided that mines in Iraq had to be destroyed.”
Later this month, Mutar and the artists hope to inaugurate a new gallery in a more prominent location in the capital. Proceeds from sales will go to orphaned children and victims of mine accidents.