For Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, finding connections between seemingly unrelated human-centric stories seems to be an almost effortless exercise – as if the links are waiting to expose themselves. As if the essence of the immeasurable human experience can be scaled back to a handful of narratives, or perhaps even just one: loss.
While well-known for his artworks that reference Iraq’s economic, political, social and cultural heritage, like May the Arrogant Not Prevail (a replicated Ishtar Gate installed in Berlin in 2010) or Spoils (a culinary intervention in 2011 that served Iraqi dishes on plates looted from Saddam Hussein’s palaces in New York), his projects that share the stories of individuals and communities from other parts of the world are equally compelling and devastating, and are often united through themes of unfortunate circumstances and neglect.
“I never wanted to make work that could only be framed by identity, although I’m not afraid of that,” he says. “You get these moments where you understand that you’re not just trying to make the next clever artwork, that these are actually things that have a lot to say about who’s making them as well.”
Originally from an Iraqi-Jewish family, Rakowitz’s grandparents fled Iraq in the 1940s, as anti-Jewish sentiment began ringing too close to home. They lived in India, where his mother was born, before eventually settling in the US. In 1973, Rakowitz was born in New York, though he is now based in Chicago, where he runs an art studio.
“With some of my projects, I’m aware that I can’t claim that sort of pain or trauma, and I have to understand what my relationship to the subject is, and where the points we intersect are,” Rakowitz says, referring to projects like A Color Removed, which drew on the murder of a 12-year-old African-American boy by a police officer in 2018, and White Man Got No Dreaming, a contemporary version of Monument to the Third International by Russian constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. The latter was created between Rakowitz and members of the Aboriginal neighbourhood in Sydney called The Block, and it used construction materials from the houses owned by the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern.
“One of the things that’s important to me is having a certain amount of doubt because that keeps me critical and wondering if I’m doing the right thing,” he says. “Just the other day, we had someone viewing White Man Got No Dreaming, and he asked me if I knew that the original piece by Tatlin was inspired by the minaret of Samarra in Iraq. And I did know that – Tatlin was inspired by Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel, which was inspired by the minaret. And I had debated putting that [information] in there in 2008, when I did the project, but I couldn’t find a way to do it. Also, I recognised that I don’t always have to bring Iraq in, but I could have if I wanted to.”
Currently being shown at Dubai’s Jameel Arts Centre in a solo exhibition until 22 November, 2020, Rakowitz’s installations involve extensive research and investigation, and touch on conflicts and the destruction of material heritage. While revealing the intersections of human identity and experience through story-sharing is a prevalent undertaking throughout his work, so is Rakowitz’s exploration of fields such as archaeology and architecture. In one of his best-known pieces, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, which started in 2008, the artist unfolds an intricate narrative around the artefacts looted from the National Museum of Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003. The work strives to replicate 800 of the stolen archaeological pieces, and recreate them using materials such as newspaper clippings and Iraqi food packaging, like date syrup cans. Often described as “Iraqi heritage meets pop culture”, the series sheds light on the lost history of Iraq – both the artefacts stolen in 2003 and the bygone eras of its date production.
“These materials, for me, are about activating that place called Iraq,” he says. “Using a maamoul cookie wrapper is an example of someone activating their relationship with Iraq, if they know that the dates used for the filling are not Saudi dates but actually Iraqi dates. And these materials are recreating something that has disappeared and not yet reappeared, and because of their own materiality, the piece will disappear again one day. And that’s what a ghost is supposed to do – in order for it to haunt, it has to appear and disappear.”
Such materials, which Rakowitz calls “fragments of cultural visibility”, are a kind of language. They tell moments of joy, gathering, eating, as well as speak of culinary traditions. It’s what makes his pieces healing to many, like Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, the former director of the National Museum of Iraq. Youkhanna worked closely with Rakowitz, and even gave tours of The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist when some of the pieces were exhibited in New York – as if he was giving tours of the originals in Baghdad. A bitter-sweet story, Rakowitz’s work allowed Youkhanna to experience the artefacts, even if in new forms, once again.
“Donny was a big supporter of the project,” says Rakowitz. “And I’m thankful to people like him who were willing to take me seriously, and who perhaps liked that I was thinking about things in a way they wouldn’t.”
And while the artist’s work is always thought-provoking, humour sometimes plays a supporting role – he once broadcasted a 10-part radio series in Palestine that mapped the slow demise of The Beatles with the failure of Pan-Arabism. “It’s an obsession,” he says of his passion for the English rock band. “And this obsessionalism is a sort of mental condition that one might want to seek help for, but it’s also opened up an attitude for me. I become deeply curious and interested in things, and I focus on them.”
At the moment, Rakowitz is working on an anti-war memorial being built in Margate, a seaside town on the south-east coast of England. In collaboration with the Veterans for Peace in the UK, the piece is a statement of both solidarity and accountability for the Iraq war, and a push to the British government to abolish war in general. In true Rakowitz fashion, the piece has multiple layers of messaging.
“The memorial makes a link to Siegfried Sassoon, a celebrated poet in England and a soldier in the first World War who came back a pacifist,” says Rakowitz. “He started this whole tradition of soldiers returning their medals in protest, and he became the poet that’s often quoted by anti-war activists, especially in the UK. It turns out he was an Iraqi Jew and from the same family that I descend from. So there it is again – the links.”
This article was originally published on Architectural Digest Middle East in May 2020.