Iraqi artist chases Guinness World Record with pin-and-thread art

Escape from ISIS-occupied home town ignited Ali Al Rawi’s talent and led to creation of a 204-square-metre copper wire artwork

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The talent that first shone through scribbles on a school bench is now taking Iraqi Ali Al Rawi towards a Guinness World Record.

The self-taught artist created a vivid work depicting the ancient Assyrian winged bull by wrapping copper wires around nails attached to wooden boards.

Al Rawi hopes his 204-square-metre piece will set a world record for the largest pin-and-thread art.

“This artwork was a challenge I set for myself to test the limits of my abilities and skills in pin-and-thread art,” Al Rawi, a 27-year-old medical worker from the city of Ramadi west of Baghdad, told The National.

“Today, I can confidently say that I’m an artist.”

Pin-and-thread art, also known as string art, involves hooking colourful strings, wool, or wires between nails hammered on a wooden board to make geometric patterns or representational designs.

When they are tightly stretched, the strings appear curved by slightly shifting the height of the nails. That criss-cross of threads results in a three-dimensional image.

The art form grew from an educational tool. At the end of the 19th century, British mathematician Mary Everest Boole devised string geometry or curve stitching to make mathematical ideas more accessible to children.

The 204 metre-square copper artwork by Iraqi artist Ali Al Rawi. Photo: Screengrab

It was then popularised as a decorative craft in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2016, a computational form of string art that can produce photorealistic artwork was introduced by Greek artist Petros Vrellis.

When ISIS plundered northern and western Iraq in 2014, Al Rawi’s home town Ramadi was one of the major cities that fell in the hands of the extremists.

His family were among thousands who fled to Baghdad in 2015. Drawing became his consolation.

“We were under huge stress,” he said. “I couldn’t follow up with the teacher at the school, so I turned to drawing on the bench in an attempt to escape reality."

Family and friends encouraged him to develop his skills.

“I was looking for videos that teach string art on YouTube and Facebook,” he said. “Gradually, day after day, I applied what I learnt from different artists.”

He is now one of Iraq’s up-and-coming plastic artists, with a main focus on pin and thread art. He organised a solo exhibition in Iraq and joined many art exhibitions and competitions inside and outside the country.

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“I was on the verge of collapse more than once and couldn’t hold back my tears at some points, but I held myself together,”
Ali Al Rawi

It took Al Rawi six months to finish the winged bull, using 250 kilograms of copper wire, 90,000 nails and 72 wooden boards.

He is hoping to see his work become a monument in his home town or Baghdad.

Al Rawi has been in touch with the Guinness World Records people since August. He submitted dozens of photos and videos as proof for the work stages and kept on top of the required paperwork.

He is now waiting their final reply.

“I went through all kinds of hardships when started working on it. I experienced psychological stress, physical exhaustion, anxiety and insomnia,” he wrote on his Instagram account after finishing the bull.

“I was on the verge of collapse more than once and couldn’t hold back my tears at some points, but I held myself together.

“I feel proud when I recall these moments, as they are proof of my determination to achieve my dreams.”

The largest pin-and-thread artwork was registered in November last year by an Iraqi artist from Karbala province, south of Baghdad. It was 6.3 square metres, the Guinness World Records website said.

Saeed Howidi Bashoon’s artwork illustrates the face of Egyptian vitiligo campaigner Logina Salah, who was diagnosed with the skin disorder at an early age.

A 'symbol of Iraqi civilisation'

The winged bull is one of the monumental arts unearthed from the ancient cities, palaces and temples of the Assyrian Empire in northern Iraq.

The Assyrian civilisation arose about 4,500 years ago and at one point extended from the Mediterranean to Iran.

The limestone bull, known as Lamassu, bears a human head and bull's body. Some examples have the horns and ears of a bull and wings.

Examples are scattered across Iraqi and world museums.

Lamassu was in the headlines in 2015 when ISIS released a video showing extremists using sledgehammers and rotary hammer drills to smash it and other ancient artefacts in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul.

The destruction was part of the extremists’ campaign to eliminate what they viewed as idolatry.

They also sold ancient artefacts on the black market to finance their “caliphate".

“The winged bull is a symbol for the Iraqi civilisation and this artwork is a message to the whole world that this civilisation will never die despite everything they [ISIS] did,” Al Rawi said.

Updated: March 26, 2022, 6:47 AM