Dr Zena Kamash (Royal Holloway) reports on a project which uses crafting and textiles as a thoughtful and therapeutic means of responding to the destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage.
What do you do when you see your heritage being destroyed in conflict? As a British Iraqi, my first response at seeing what was happening to Mosul and Moslawis was, simply, to cry. After the initial shock and distress, I decided I had to do something to promote a more positive narrative about Iraq and to encourage healing and wellbeing amongst those who have suffered. The current result of this decision is the ‘Rematerialising Mosul Museum’ project, which saw two workshops this summer at Cheney School, Oxford in collaboration with fibre artist, Karin Celestine. During the workshops, participants were invited to felt a picture of an object from a selection of pictures mainly from Mosul, but also from other parts of Iraq. The results were beautiful, with so much heart and creativity put into each creation.
I had several reasons for choosing to work with textiles and with a textile artist. Firstly, Mosul has a very long and vibrant textile history, so this seemed like a natural medium to use to continue this tradition; you can read more about this here. In addition to this, there is a growing body of research into the links between crafting, especially with textiles, and wellbeing (see, for example, the Yarnfulness Project). Furthermore, this opened up the opportunity to use this project as a way to engage in craftivism: the gentle act of protest through crafting. I felt there were various reasons to take a craftivist approach.
The project is, of course, a response to conflict, but also provides an antidote to the plethora of digital reconstruction projects that have proliferated as a consequence. I wanted to find alternatives to our current knee-jerk response to destruction through conflict (‘Rebuild! Reconstruct!’). Such responses often seem to operate at a high-level of governments and international institutions, and do not appear to include the wishes and hopes of everyday people. Instead, I hope that this project is beginning to demonstrate that there are more creative and therapeutic forms of reconstruction to be explored where people lie at the heart.
As such, it was important for me in the workshops that people were free to make choices of colour, degree of realistic representation etc. If someone wanted to make a neon pink lamassu, then that was their choice. And while we did not end up with a pink lamassu, we did have a wonderful lamassu in West Ham colours created by British Iraqi West Ham fan, Sami! Indeed, one of the most interesting things to observe in the workshops was how people may have taken inspiration from similar objects, but interpreted them in ways that spoke to their heart.
This may only have been a small intervention, and there is so much more work to be done, but I believe the workshops demonstrated that there are alternatives to be found and positive futures to be created. People came from a range of backgrounds – some with an intimate knowledge of Iraq, some who wanted to find out more. By the end of the workshops, everybody, including me, came away with a new creative skill and a new piece of personal heritage, plus we had shared stories, chatted and laughed. As one person commented in the guest book: “memories and emotions deserve to have a space”.
You can see more pictures of the pieces people made here and here. If you would like to try making your own felted panel, there are instructions with lots of pictures and suggestions for objects to inspire you here. I also have a limited number of free starter packs of felting materials; if you would like a pack, please contact me by email: Zena.Kamash@rhul.ac.uk or on Twitter: @ZenaKamash
With thanks to the Institute of Classical Studies and the British Institute for the Study of Iraq for generously funding the workshops.