Cover image of the review
Ara Dolatian, Mythos of the Island (2022), Photo: Ivana Smiljanic

Ara Dolatian: Mythos of the Island

3 Sep 2022
James Makin Gallery 20 Aug - 4 Sep 2022

It is only at a second glance that I realise that the current exhibition of sculpture at James Makin Gallery is a temporary burial and excavation site. I am transported back two decades to memories of daily CNN “embedded journalism” updates on the West’s last great crusade. On 10 April 2003, three weeks into the US invasion of Iraq, television audiences—still transfixed by what then appeared to be an invincible US techno- and hyperpower—watched devastating scenes of a National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad ransacked by looters while US forces stood idle. What at first looked like a spectacle of spontaneous anarchy brought about by a vacuum of power, disgruntled citizens and US army disorganization was later revealed to be no such thing: opportunistic looting in fact took place but the museum’s most prized possessions had been expertly targeted by professionals and insiders, who were well prepared to take the most valuable pieces and steer clear of worthless copies. Thus, the professional thieves used the cover of the post-invasion chaos to steal and smuggle some of the world’s oldest and most precious artefacts out of the country and proceeded to transfer them into the impenetrable, illegal international arts trade. Its flows of dark money added further fuel the dismantling of the country by a multitude of private entrepreneurial and pirating militias. In total, nine thousand to ten thousand works disappeared, but who can tell really? After all, the museum’s catalogues were strategically destroyed to make it even more difficult to allow accountability and prevent reselling on illicit markets. At the same time, the museum’s looting presented only a dramatic overture to the parallel economy of pirate trade and illegal excavations by ISIS and other actors across the destabilised country that was to ensue in the years to come, and which has been reported on by the University of Chicago’s MANTIS research team and others.

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