How Scorched Earth turned ash from war zones into art

Emilee Geist

Anish Kapoor’s acrylic on paper for the ‘Scorched Earth’ auction
Anish Kapoor’s acrylic on paper for the ‘Scorched Earth’ auction

It is a long way from shaking a collection box on a street corner. Simon Butler, a charity director, last year found himself crouching on the ground in 43C heat, spooning ash from burnt crops into plastic tubs on the war-torn fields of Iraqi Kurdistan, as he put into practice a scheme his hosts told him was utterly impractical. 

“Everyone said you’re a lunatic . . . I didn’t know any of the answers. I just had the idea,” he says. 

The ash was all that was left of crops burnt by insurgents, thought to be Islamic state jihadists, in a region left reeling by the war with Isis. 

Butler’s off-the-cuff plan was to take the material back to Britain, where he would work out how to have it transformed into paint, before persuading well-known artists to create works that would highlight the threat to food security faced by the region as well as the plight of refugees whose lives have been shattered by the brutal war.

Migrate Art founder Simon Butler collecting ash in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2019 . . .
Migrate Art founder Simon Butler collecting ash in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2019 . . . © Migrate Art
. . . paint being creating from the ash taken from the burnt crop fields
. . . paint being creating from the ash taken from the burnt crop fields © Migrate Art/Jackson’s Art Supplies

“Scorched Earth”, led by Butler’s charity Migrate Art, has turned from an eccentric idea to a reality, with 14 prominent artists participating, their works lined up for auction at Christie’s on October 23 to raise funds for refugee charities, and the ash-based pigment available for sale online. 

The black oil and black acrylic paints have inspired a striking range of artistic responses. Anish Kapoor used the pigment as the coal-dark background to set off a ghostly image of a fire. Antony Gormley’s delicately scored paper provides a structure for a human form, its criss-cross lines guiding the paint into inkblot-like limbs and torso. Raqib Shaw, an Indian artist based in London whose family was forced to leave Kashmir by the unrest that erupted there in the 1990s, offered an exquisitely crafted painting of an idyllic mountain landscape — offset by the violence of rioting figures against an explosive wall of fire. 

Raqib Shaw’s piece for the ‘Scorched Earth’ auction
Raqib Shaw’s piece for the ‘Scorched Earth’ auction

Travelling to the city of Duhok in northern Iraq last year at the invitation of a Kurdish friend, Butler visited refugee camps sheltering those displaced by the years of fighting. While on the road, though, he witnessed everywhere the blackened stubble from burnt crops, which locals had told him was the handiwork of Isis fighters. 

Though Isis has been forced out of the vast stretch of territory it once held across the Middle East, insurgents loyal to Isis continue to mount lethal raids, assassinations and bombings, the Pentagon has said. Militia groups intent on intimidating the local population and causing economic havoc have set light to the arable crops, ruining the first good harvest for several years. 

After collecting the ash, Butler was convinced he would be barred from bringing it into the UK. So he bought packets of tea, threw away their contents and refilled them with his strange cargo before boarding his flight home. The plan worked — he passed unhindered through customs in London. 

Shepard Fairey’s print series ‘Rise From the Ashes’ (2020)
Shepard Fairey’s print series ‘Rise From the Ashes’ (2020)

He found a willing supporter in Jackson’s Art Supplies, which transformed the ash into black paint. With his medium secured, Butler mobilised his art world contacts built up over the previous decade in roles at galleries including Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, White Cube and Lazarides. 

Among the participating artists are five Turner Prize winners, including Rachel Whiteread, Richard Long and Richard Deacon. The auction proceeds from their work will go to Migrate Art and three partner charities focused on helping refugees. 

Walid Siti, another London-based artist who produced work, feels an intense personal connection to the initiative: he was born in Duhok and himself came to the UK as a refugee in the 1980s. Visiting family in the region, he also witnessed the harrowing conditions in the surrounding refugee camps. “This project was important for me . . . I know it’s a very small thing, but it’s a big thing metaphorically.”

‘Red Earth’ by Loie Hollowell
‘Red Earth’ by Loie Hollowell

He used the paint to blacken a mixture of straw, earth and plaster, creating an organic form with ladder-like structures protruding from its upper surface. “I wanted to convey some sense of people’s helplessness in the devastation, with the ladders giving the idea of transformation or escape.” 

Others reacted to the granular texture of the paint. Loie Hollowell, a New-York based artist, was surprised when she loaded up her brush with it. “You could feel it — it was very gritty. I had to figure out how to work with it.” 

Hollowell, whose painting shows a stylised landscape of rounded mountain ridges — or in a dual reading, parts of her own body — says the paint “made everything much more sombre”, muting the tones of her normally vibrant palette. 

‘Trails’ by Walid Siti
‘Trails’ by Walid Siti

It also turned her thoughts to her native state of California, where wildfires have ripped through towns, including her parents’ community outside Santa Rosa. “The skies are grey, everything is dirty. They wake up to find ash on the windowsill.”

She says they are now considering leaving the state altogether, forced to migrate by the effects of climate change. They have the luxury of time in which to make a choice, unlike those displaced by war. But it is seldom that a commonplace artistic medium like paint can generate such creative, if bleak, connections. “It forced me to contend with the physicality of the environment it came from.”

Butler has the final word. “Charities we work with are struggling because a lot of big funders have pulled out in the economic crisis. So I think what we’re doing is more important than ever,” he says.

Photographs of art work courtesy of the artist and Migrate Art

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