Iraqi and Cambodian Artists turn war metal leftovers to works of art
By: Niam Itani, Co-Founder at Snazzy Bazaar
Growing up during the Lebanese Civil War, which officially ended more than 25 years ago, I am constantly amazed at how that war continues to define me as a human being. The war has left an everlasting mark on me. I tried to get rid of its traces for many years, but eventually I surrendered and embraced the fact that it will always shape who I am. This is why I find myself in awe of people who are able to rise above war and even try to undo its effects.
Sinoeun Men from Cambodia and Fattah Mohammad from Iraq do that on a daily basis. Both men have lived many years of conflict in their own countries, and today they are dedicated to creative initiatives that transform material war remnants into works of art.
Mr. Sinoeun Men is the Executive Director of the Artisans Association of Cambodia (AAC).
The AAC supports and empowers vulnerable community members through the process of making and selling fair trade handicraft items. They support women, landmine survivors and people with disabilities to make a decent living.
My interest in the AAC stemmed from the fact that it oversees member organizations that make jewelry out of leftover war metal and bomb casing. For me, this craft feels like more than a work of art. It feels like heroism.
I asked Sinoeun about the birth of this idea - to turn leftover metal of war to jewelry.
Sinoeun: Cambodia suffered through three decades of war. Since the war ended and until today, we have a major issue with millions of landmines and tons of scrap metal from bullets and bomb casing. The idea of using the metal to make jewelry started with member association Craftworks Cambodia, after a suggestion from one of the UN Staff Members in a refugee camp in the 1990s. It was a good way to make use of all the metal leftovers like bullets, bomb casings and landmines. At AAC, we foster a culture that focuses on reusing and recycling. We try not to throw anything back to the earth. It is not only metal that we are reusing; we reuse everything: Soda cans, soda bottle lids, broken ceramics, rice bags, plastic bags, vegetable fiber, and other material.
Niam: What do the Cambodian people think about your craftsmen and women using war leftovers to make jewelry? Do they buy this jewelry or does it remind them of the war?
Sinoeun: I don’t think the Cambodian people mind, I think they like it because it is helping solve one of the country’s main issues, which is the landmines and the bomb casings. The artisans enjoy it too because it provides them with a decent life. Unfortunately, the local people can’t afford to buy this jewelry so most of it is sold in art fairs to tourists or exported abroad. It is mostly bought by foreigners who prefer to buy environmentally friendly jewelry and want to help eradicate the effects of war and empower women and vulnerable groups.
Niam: What is your message from doing the work that you do?
Sinoeun: My message is: Make use of everything, no matter how small it is, before you send it back to the soil, to the land. Use everything. Protect our earth.
The AAC has more than 50 member organizations. Of the employees working in member organizations, 79% are women. Selling the products they make under the regulations of the Fair Trade Agreement allows them a decent living and the ability to support their families. It provides their children with food, shelter and a much needed education.
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Fattah Mohammad is an artist from Kurdistan (Iraq). He has witnessed many armed conflicts in Iraq since the 1980s. Today, he collects physical war remnants and transforms them into various art pieces that have been displayed in more than 90 exhibits inside and outside Kurdistan.
I asked Fattah Mohammad to describe his work.
Fattah: I simply sculpt war remnants into art pieces. I prefer to use a modern style because it allows me more freedom than traditional styles of art. I try to keep my work as realistic as possible so that people of all ages can understand it. War doesn’t differentiate between young and old and I try to make my art pieces in such a way that it also reaches all ages.
Niam: What is the purpose of making art from war leftovers?
Fattah: The concept of sculpting with war remnants and transforming this material into art is a message to warmongers to say enough. Enough war, enough destruction... The people of this land deserve to live. We are a nation that loves life and beauty so much that we are transforming the destruction you leave behind into art. That is the purpose of using war remnants. I focus particularly on non environmentally friendly material that doesn’t decompose such as plastic, glass and metal. These elements affect our lives and our environment negatively. In that sense, my work is also a message of awareness for all associations that care about the environment. This part of the world is very lacking when it comes to recycling and repurposing facilities and it could use more attention.
Niam: What do you do with your art? How do you get the message across?
Fattah: My art has been exhibited inside and outside Kurdistan. I want my message to reach as wide an audience as possible. I would like for the art to be seen more often in the United States and other countries so that I can show the suffering that my people have endured. Tourists who visit Kurdistan show a lot of appreciation to my works, especially because the sculptures are very realistic. I sculpt animal figures so that children can also understand the purpose of the work. Art enthusiasts and critics have expressed their appreciation as well.
Fattah Mohammad is a member in the Syndicate of Kurdistan Artists, a member of the Modern Art Group and he is the Manager of Activities at the Fine Arts School in Dohuk, Kurdistan, Iraq.
We may not be able to stop war, ever, but we can always find a way to stand up to it, do the right thing for our communities, our homes and the planet earth.
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Cover Image: Art by Fattah Mohammad, Kurdistan, Iraq
Video: Interview with Iraqi Artist Fattah Mohammad by Associated Press Agency at his exhibition