Michael Rakowitz and the excavation of cultural trauma

STIR investigates the multifaceted art-activism of Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, who is showcasing his first solo exhibition at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.

by Jones John Published on : Nov 13, 2020

“Regardless, if you were for or against the war, there was an agreement that this was a catastrophe, and it was a loss for all of humanity. There was a kind of primal scene of human existence that was very much at risk at that moment,” reflects Michael Rakowitz, thinking back to the April of 2003 when several groups of looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq, following an engagement between American and Iraqi soldier in the building’s vicinity, to ransack its contents over a period of four days. The incident was met with international outcry, followed by attempts to recover Iraq’s national treasures, but only a portion of what was lost would ever be returned to the Middle Eastern nation, not counting all the artefacts that were vandalised and rendered unrecognisable. “And when the outrage about lost artefacts did not translate to anger about lost lives, I became angry because it brought into sharp focus what we all know: the West will apply this kind of care and respect for the objects. Still, they won't afford that same care and respect for the people”.

‘The invisible enemy should not exist' | Michael Rakowitz| STIRworld
The invisible enemy should not exist Image: Daniella Baptista, Courtesy of Jameel Arts Centre

Rakowitz, whose works are currently being exhibited at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, is an Iraqi-American artist of Jewish heritage who, for around two decades, has developed a practice that revolves around the various cultural histories of his native land and its people. Employing modes of installation and relationist artmaking, he has been working through several series of long-duration projects to create poignant cultural moments that are fuelled by his memories to bring attention to the several injustices that had been meted on the people of his native land through the period of and following the Iraqi War. For example, an early work titled Return, where he revived his grandfather’s business to import Iraqi dates to the United States of America, was driven by both memories of his grandfather making date syrup by hand using a mortar and pestle, and an awareness that date syrup brands found in the American market, which were declared to be the ‘Product of Lebanon’, could actually trace its roots to Baghdad, and this being a tactic employed by Iraqi entrepreneurs to circumvent trade sanctions.

Michael Rakowitz standing in front of a section of ‘The Breakup’ | Michael Rakowitz | STIRworld
Michael Rakowitz standing in front of a section of The Breakup Image: Daniella Baptista, Courtesy of Jameel Arts Centre

With The Breakup, which is a 10-part radio series that is amongst the three works being exhibited at the Jameels Art Centre, Rakowitz approaches another subject of political import to the Middle East, the breakdown of the pan-Arabian project, but unexpectedly by juxtaposing the event with that of the Beatles disbanding. This project was initiated by an invitation from Jack Persekian of the Al-Ma'mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, which was a Palestinian organisation, where he might have been expected to articulate the perspective of an Arab-Jew who grew up in suburban New York but it was another experience through which he related to the surrounding political condition and this was the sense of loss he felt from his mother on the event of John Lennon’s assassination. “It was martyrdom that brought me to love the Beatles, and therefore, for me, my city was not Jerusalem. It was Liverpool, a place that I have still never been to. When Jack invited me to do a project for Jerusalem, I thought that the most uninteresting thing I could do was direct, to go to Palestine, and say, I stand with you. I wanted to do something that was indeed a gift to the city that could be something that would speak about Jerusalem in a way that I didn't have to talk about Jerusalem. I have a friend named Francois, who once told me that in the poem about love, you don't use the word love, which stuck with me. And so, I told Jack that if I were to do a project about Jerusalem, I would do it about Liverpool. If he wanted me to do a project that was about exhaustion and when life gives way to collapse, I will talk about a different moment”.

Detail from ‘The flesh is yours, the bones are ours’ | Michael Rakowitz | STIRworld
Detail from The flesh is yours, the bones are ours Image: Daniella Baptista, Courtesy of Jameel Arts Centre

The flesh is yours, the bones are ours, and The invisible enemy should not exist, which completes the exhibition in Dubai, speak more for histories that are forgotten or made to disappear. The first, which was originally made for the 2015 Istanbul Biennale, which fell on the centenary year of the Armenian genocide, was a tribute to the Armenian craftsmen who had helped create the Art Nouveau architecture that had become a part of Istanbul’s topography following several fires and earthquakes that devastated the city through the later decades of the 20th century. “Suppose I think about Istanbul and think about who made those art nouveau motifs, those flourishes throughout this city, in that case, I recognise that Istanbul is beautiful because of its minorities: because of the Armenian and Kurdish craftspeople. And if I were to imagine those motifs disappearing and being dislocated from their buildings the way that the people were in 1915 and even before that, Istanbul would be a very boring city”.

Detail from ‘The invisible enemy should not exist (Northwest palace of Nimrud, Room N)’ | Michael Rakowitz | STIRworld
Detail from The invisible enemy should not exist (Northwest palace of Nimrud, Room N) Image: Daniella Baptista, Courtesy of Jameel Arts Centre

Speaking for his approach to reconstructing monuments destroyed through the course of the Islamic State’s occupation of the Middle East, which is part of The invisible enemy should not exist series, Rakowitz says, “I try to use materials that keep the wound alive, that keep the traces of the problems and the failures alive. And I see those materials that I enlist—the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs and Arabic/English newspapers as a kind of visible scar. Whereas if you are 3D printing and trying to mimic the gypsum from Mosul, you may be able to 3D print those artefacts, but you can't 3D print the DNA of the people in Mosul who end up perishing alongside those artefacts. And for me, there is also a certain kind of dignity in these things like the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs —in this kind of constant haemorrhaging of communities in places like Iraq when they end up elsewhere”.

This juxtaposition, of mass visual vernacular and the historical monument, might appear irreverent to some but within its weaves one might excavate a narrative of cultural transmission. As Rakowitz explains, “I think it picks up on our historical tropes where the readymade Campbell's soup cans come into the frame as well. Why shouldn't there be a Warhol moment for Iraqis with all these Karbala date cans, where it can be revered as something that isn't just about disposability but about a kind of restoration of dignity, of who we are and the things that go into our bodies as Iraqis, as a diaspora that insists on remaining in some way, insists on belonging”.

A section of ¬‘The invisible enemy should not exist (Northwest palace of Nimrud, Room N)’ as displayed at the Jameel Arts Centre | Michael Rakowitz | STIRworld
A section of The invisible enemy should not exist (Northwest palace of Nimrud, Room N) as displayed at the Jameel Arts Centre Image: Daniella Baptista, Courtesy of Jameel Arts Centre

The conversation does not end here. “One of the reasons why I think people feel connected to all of these images, whether it's the Lamassu or the reliefs from places like Nineveh or Nimrud, is that there's a familiarity we have with those images because we see them in western encyclopaedic museums that most of us have visited at some point in our lives. These are all things that live outside of Iraq — in the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And one of the reasons for that is the history of plunder”. And as we examine at the contemporary moment, a history of unequal exchange based on hegemonic structures set up during the age of colonialism, which continue to manifest to this day and of post-imperial entitlement. “So that's the part that interests me the most, the way that an encyclopaedic museum, in its best sense, can somehow acknowledge the curiosity we have for one another. But if we are going to be honest, the encyclopaedic museum exists mostly in western countries, and that mutual curiosity is not there, because it’s been the West extracting these objects and countries like Iraq that are left looking at its history in fragments. There’s no reciprocity just yet”.

The conversation does not end here.

‘The invisible enemy should not exist (2009 - ongoing)’ | Michael Rakowitz| STIRworld
The invisible enemy should not exist (2009 - ongoing) Image: Daniella Baptista, Courtesy of Jameel Arts Centre

Michael Rakowitz’s installations at the Jameel Arts Centre are on display until November 22, 2020.

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