The 57th Venice Biennale, which will run from May until November of this year in Italy, will push boundaries with an exhibit featuring 40 artifacts from the Iraq Museum of Baghdad, many of which have never left the country legally. One of the curators, Tamara Chalabi, described the exhibit as a direct response to the “cultural genocide” perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and an attempt to fight the “cultural prejudice” that there is “nothing left worth saving” in Iraq. With the ongoing battle in Mosul, Iraq, as well as the struggle in Palmyra, Syria, which ISIS retook from Russian-backed Syrian forces in December and which was once home to priceless artifacts that ISIS has since destroyed, this exhibit could not be more timely. Pillaging, looting, and destroying ancient cities in Syria and Iraq is a war on culture, and in some ways the art world—the collectors who purchase these antiquities—are unintentionally contributing to this war.
ISIS’s use of antiquities and cultural artifacts to further their own cause, both through destruction and through sales, rose to international attention in 2015, when videos surfaced of militants smashing sculptures in a Mosul museum. This act of cultural cleansing occurred in tandem with an ethnic cleansing of Assyrians, a Christian minority, in Iraq and Syria and drew outrage from UNESCO, among others, who demanded an emergency UN meeting to discuss protecting Iraq’s cultural identity and national security. Some even suggested involving the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate whether or not ISIS could be tried for “cultural war crimes,” though the logistics of going through with such a trial seems difficult, especially given the myriad of other crimes against humanity ISIS has committed. The call for an international investigation underscores the seriousness of ISIS’s efforts to re-write history by eradicating the heritage of Iraqi and Syrian peoples, though.
Bulldozing and erasing history is not ISIS’s only end game, which the upcoming exhibition in Venice acknowledges. The exhibit does contribute to the cause of preserving Iraq’s cultural heritage and history by offering a rare glimpse at artifacts that have not been displayed outside of the country’s borders. By displaying pieces that have been looted and then recovered, however, the exhibit highlights another aspect of this war: that ISIS has been profiting from sales of stolen antiquities and using the money to finance terrorist operations. Estimates from 2015 suggest that ISIS makes around $80 million a month in revenue, though it is difficult to get an exact figure, through oil sales, taxation, and selling drugs and antiquities. In 2016, Russia’s ambassador to the UN estimated that militants bring in between $150 million and $200 million a year from the antiquities trade, selling objects that have been smuggled from over 4,000 archaeological sites. Items are sold through a variety of channels: at Turkish markets, on eBay and other online platforms, and even at secret Italian mafia-controlled art-for-weapons rings. Collectors in the art world have been—knowingly or not—purchasing these items and contributing to the “GDP of terror,” which could cause some awkward moments at the Venice Biennale.
Preserving cultural artifacts often seems to take the back burner in foreign policy, since the threats posed by nuclear weapons, cyber attacks, terrorism, etc. are much more direct. In Iraq and Syria, however, ISIS is not only destroying the history of the region in favor of their own narrative, but is using the very culture they claim to want to eradicate in order to purchase weapons and finance terrorist activities—a direct threat to national security for the US, France, Belgium, Tunisia, and every other country that has been targeted by ISIS. Sending the ICC to try ISIS leaders for cultural war crimes is not enough to put a stop to the sale of antiquities looted from the region.
As Chalabi points out through her exhibit, there is plenty worth saving in Iraq. At this point, no major museum in Syria has had its contents pillaged, and tens of thousands of items have been airlifted to safety since 2015. For that to continue to be the case, and to reduce the millions of dollars ISIS brings in per year through the sale of pillaged goods, concrete steps need to be taken to combat the antiquities trade. An ICC case would take place at least ten to fifteen years from now and would likely will not have much of an impact by that point. A better method might be introducing international anti-trafficking laws aimed specifically at artifacts pillaged from Iraq and Syria, perhaps criminalizing purchasing trafficked items or establishing a multinational team to track organizations and individuals involved in smuggling and selling. Putting pressure on countries like Turkey and Italy, who are both heavily involved in the antiquities trade, would also be useful in combating artifacts trafficking.