Sculptor worked secretly under ISIS rule to help preserve cuneiform


The young artist Safa al-Din al-Mashhadani worked secretly in his grandfather's house in Mosul when ISIS occupied the city. Now free of the group, Safa has brought his clay works out into the open to showcase them on the Iraqi street.

Despite ISIS’ attempts to wipe out Iraq’s heritage and culture, Iraqis have held dearly to their rich history and arts. Safa al-Din al-Mashhadani, a young Iraqi sculptor in Mosul, resisted the militant group by secretly preserving Iraq’s Mesopotamian cuneiform writing in his grandfather’s basement.

Al-Mashhadani, a graduate of the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Mosul, continued to produce handmade clay tablets, medals, and necklaces that imitated texts found in ancient cuneiform pieces.

The artist spent most of the time that ISIS’ controlled his city in his grandfather’s basement, turning it into an exhibition of the country’s earliest written language.

“The Faculty of Archaeology is interested in cuneiform texts, especially in my area, which is writing on clay,” said Safa al-Mashhadani. “Given that I write on clay and the faculty holds exhibitions, I thought of doing something relevant to both our civilisation and the present.”
Following the militant group’s defeat in Mosul in July 2017, Safa emerged from the darkness, bringing his pieces to light.

The sculptor now sells his art pieces in the streets of Mosul, with each piece going for between $4 and $29. The money he receives goes towards his dream of pursuing a higher education degree at the University of Mosul.

“It is unfortunate that when a student graduates, he cannot find work. I did not wait to find work and worked in my domain,” said Safa. “Since my speciality is rare, I have shown it to the public, and it became the source of income.”

Since ISIS’ defeat in the country, artists across Iraq have attempted to rejuvenate this sector.

Authors, sculptors, painters, actors, musicians and filmmakers are producing work that not only portrays ISIS’ cruelty, but instead showcases the will of Iraqis to continue to create art, and remember their cultural heritage and history despite the dark days that they lived.