Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 23rd June 2019

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Michael Rakowitz exhibition showcases destruction of Iraqi heritage

The most ambitious reconstruction is the remaking of some 15,000 objects from the Baghdad Museum that have been lost or destroyed.


“The Breakup” from the exhibition of Michael Rakowitz in London. (Karen Dabrowska)

“The Breakup” from the exhibition of Michael Rakowitz in London. (Karen Dabrowska)

LONDON - Destruction, loss, recreation, memory and nostalgia are the themes running through a major exhibition of the works of Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, hosted by London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

Rakowitz’s magnificent recreation of Lamsu, the winged god that guarded the Nergal Gate of Nineveh from 700BC until its destruction by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2015, is standing on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, where it is to remain until 2020.

The Lamsu was constructed out of 10,000 date syrup cans and is part of a larger project, “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist,” which forms part of the Whitechapel show.

Rakowitz said the project was inspired by a trip to a grocery store in Chicago during which his parents bought date syrup.

“The material culture of my work and the materials I invoke are meant to be a part of what the work is saying. They are its voice,” Rakowitz said in a public conversation at the Whitechapel Gallery.

“The Iraqi deity made out of date syrup cans is facing the lions made out of melted down cannons. The face down is between two beasts – one made out of the weapons of war, the other made out of syrup cans – something from the intimate spaces of the victims of war.”

Another amazing reconstruction is of panels from the palace of Nimrud built by Ashurbanipal II (883-859BC). These were made using commercial packaging: Moroccan tinned sardines, Maggi halal chicken soup, the branded packaging of Al Kbous tea, Middle Eastern chewing gum and many other products sourced from Assyrian grocery shops in Chicago.

“When you go to the British Museum, you see panels from that palace. My reconstruction is not just an articulation of what ISIS destroyed. It is also a project about loss,” Rakowitz said.

“The blacked-out areas are around people’s heads. A client in the West who was going to receive a frieze from an archaeologist would not pay a huge amount for shipping so they came up with a technique in which they could slice off the head and behead the sculptures.”

The most ambitious reconstruction is the remaking of some 15,000 objects from the Baghdad Museum that have been lost or destroyed. On its website, the Oriental Institute of Chicago shows the status of objects from the museum, which are labelled either “unknown,” “looted” or “destroyed.”

“They did this to deter people who buy antiquities on the black market and also draw attention to how much hidden cultural patrimony had gone missing,” Rakowitz explained.

“We used the photos from the website and worked with Interpol to find out what was missing. The idea is to approximate the objects. The recreations are always going to be ghosts. The idea is to create an aura of what was there.”

Since 2007, 700 objects have been reconstructed. A selection stands on a large trestle table, meticulously labelled and appended with numerous quotations, including remarks from the late Donny George, an esteemed archaeologist who tried to stop the looting; Selma al-Radi, an Iraqi archaeologist who led the more than 20-year restoration of the Amiriya Madrasa, which is under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and William Polk, a former professor of history at Harvard University.

“In Iraq, they know what is missing,” Rakowitz said when asked if the reconstructions would be sent to Iraq. “This began as an angry project because the outrage about lost artefacts did not transition in the world as a kind of collective outrage about lost lives.”

“If the Iraqis want them, I would return them in a heartbeat but I also think of them as ghosts. Who do these ghosts need to haunt? Who needs to be reminded? I think about this in terms of the Lamsu as well. Should it go back to Nineveh? Do they need a ghost?”

The past talks to the present in a video “The Ballad of Special Ops Cody.” The New York Daily News ran a front-page article about a threat by a mujahideen squadron to behead a soldier called John Adams if prisoners were not released from US Army jails in Iraq. It turned out that the photo of the prisoner was of a doll called Special Ops Cody made by Dragon Models.

Rakowitz acquired the doll and created a scenario in which Cody goes to the Oriental Institute and tries to free the statues in the Assyrian Gallery. To come to terms with the United States’ involvement in Iraq, Cody apologises and a dialogue between a statue from 2005AD and a statue from 2005BC ensues.

East meets West when Rakowitz, a Beatles fan, uses the band’s ephemera to draw parallels between two unrealised dreams: the group’s attempts to stay together and the aspirations of pan-Arabism. Rakowitz noted that breakups and unfulfilled dreams are universal experiences and the exhibition underscores our ultimate common humanity.

The Michael Rakowitz exhibition is scheduled to be at the Whitechapel Gallery through August 25.