Lebanese artist Ginane Makki Bacho uses a series of sculptures inspired by the brutality of ISIS to reflect on humanity’s innate thirst for violence, questioning what it truly means to be civilised

Ginane Makki Bacho was welding together scrap metal to make a toy truck for her grandson when the idea for her next series struck her. The truck, complete with caterpillar treads made from an old bike chain, reminded her of video footage she’d seen of ISIS convoys – tanks, trucks and motorbikes bristling with armed men and black flags. Bacho never gave the truck to her grandson. Instead, she created two gunmen to place inside it, and began welding an army.

Three years on, her solo show, Civilisation, which ran from December 9 to January 7 at Saleh Baraket Gallery, contained dozens of sculptures in steel and bronze. Each one resembled an old-fashioned children’s toy, recalling traditional tin soldiers. Yet each sculpture represented the horrific atrocities committed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, rendering them grotesque parodies of innocence.

“When I started to hear about ISIS I couldn’t believe it,” Bacho recalls. “I thought maybe it was fake, or people were exaggerating, but little by little it started to really hurt me, especially because it was in the name of Islam… I felt among my friends and relatives that, as long as it wasn’t directly affecting them, nobody cared. So the main purpose of my project was to awaken awareness.”

Tanks covered with guns and trucks carrying captives clad in orange jumpsuits are accompanied by a cavalcade of motorbikes, each bearing multiple riders holding automatic weapons and waving flags. Rows of cages contain prisoners, and bodies swing by the necks from makeshift gallows. In one large installation, men with hammers and axes lay waste to sculpted figures, referencing the destruction of priceless heritage in Mosul and Palmyra. A series of bronze sculptures of small boats, laden with limp figures, tie these acts of violence to the tragic deaths of thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean.

“Just as a writer or a journalist might condemn something, I felt I had to do it in my own way,” says Bacho. “During the Lebanese Civil War we saw everything. This phenomenon of ISIS doesn’t take shape except in news and pictures and videos, because, thank God, I am not there, but that doesn’t mean I am not shocked and involved emotionally. I feel humiliated as a human being. How can they burn people? How can they cut off heads and sell women, like in the Middle Ages?”

In Civilisation, creativity meets barbarity. Accompanying the grisly sculptures of tanks and prisoners are symbolic works – books, swords and rows of flags – that place the depraved violence of ISIS within a wider context. Bacho points out that human beings have always committed acts of unspeakable violence.

“In the 21st century we are still not civilised,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if we accumulate knowledge, if we’re just going to create more terrorism and more weapons… If we are going to evolve and to progress and to create new technology, just to be more violent and cruel, it would be better for us to be shepherds and live quietly.”

The cages, each with a prisoner locked inside, are particularly poignant symbols. Bacho equates them with the cage the Romans used to imprison Queen Zenobia, Empress of Palmyra, almost 2000 years ago. Likewise her steel and bronze books recall the burning of Mosul’s libraries by ISIS, but also the 1258 siege of Baghdad by the Mongols, during which thousands of manuscripts were burned or throw into the Tigris. They therefore serve a dual purpose, highlighting the circular nature of history while lamenting our lack of progress as a species. “Every civilisation is built on blood and violence,” Bacho says sadly.

“I didn’t use new steel. I used scrap metal, to show that this is a scrap civilisation,” she adds. “They are the detritus of this civilisation and I’m recycling them to shock and to awaken people and to encourage them to do something.”

The exhibition also featured a selection of Bacho’s signature cedar trees, made using fragments of shrapnel collected after her home and studio were bombed in 1982. These works aided in tying Bacho’s reflections on contemporary violence into a historical context, bringing it perhaps uncomfortably close to home.

Grim though it may be, Bacho’s Civilisation series is a significant work that reflects the zeitgeist. It deserves to remain together, as one enormous installation, rather than scattered piecemeal among different collectors.

“I think a lot of people will be nasty about this work and say, ‘We have seen enough of this. Why are you putting them into your work? They don’t deserve to be immortalised,’” Bacho says. “But all artists are the witnesses of their eras. We cannot ignore ISIS. We cannot deny their existence. If people just want to see something to please the eye, that’s not art, for me.”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One to Watch #40, page 106-107