Lost Iraqi art reappears in mosaic

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Pictured above: Paper Objects (2021)

Michael Rakowitz has made it his life’s work to recreate, in mosaic, art lost to war in Iraq. Matt Hanson explores his journey.


Listen to Matt Hanson narrate his article:

The visually disparate, conceptually contiguous artworks of Michael Rakowitz are like a freewheeling, multidimensional mosaic when contemplated as the sprawling sum of their many and eccentric parts.

From makeshift homeless shelters to monumental antiwar sculpture, and grappling with everything from the Anatolian graveyards of the Armenian Genocide to the demolished Bamiyan buddhas of Afghanistan, the diversity of his oeuvre can also be seen as a personal reflection of his seemingly divergent Arab-Jewish Iraqi-American identity and heritage. 

Last year, while immersed in the production of his ongoing series, “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”, he won the Nasher Prize among countless accolades. The series plans to remake, or, in his language, “reappear”, over 7,000 artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq that have been destroyed or stolen by ISIS militants or colonialist collectors. The first thousand reappearances has taken him fourteen years. At 47 years of age he remains full-steam ahead. At his current rate, it would take him another 84 years. The project’s outliving him is the point. 

While not critically framed, or institutionally presented as mosaic, he is intrigued by the notion with an inspired, open mind. “The idea of mosaic and this kind of constitution of something larger made up of smaller and imperfect parts is definitely part of the process both physically and also in terms of its ethos and its metaphorical DNA,” Rakowitz told Mosaic & Glass a week before traveling from his home and studio in Chicago to Istanbul’s shorefronts, where the white cube gallery Pi Artworks was exhibiting Panel CB-1 (2021), and other works. 

Panel CB-1

Titled after his series, which can be seen as a vastly-proportioned mosaic, its pieces yet to be assembled in full, his solo show at Pi Artworks, “The invisible enemy should not exist”, centered his adaptation of an Assyrian temple relief from the palace at Kalhu, better known as Nimrud, which was destroyed in 2015 by ISIS militants. Rakowitz is taking people back in time to how they would have looked to someone just prior to their tragic loss. Still, the gypsum reliefs were incomplete, and in some cases he shows nothing more than a textual reference.  

Pieced apart by colonialist antiquities dealers who essentially stole from the heart of Iraq’s tangible heritage, often removing the heads alone; a grim parallel to ISIS decapitations. Rakowitz sees his work reclaiming lost objects as a solemn memorial to lost people. “It shows the different scales with which the project has been operating. You have something as small as the severed head of those votive sculptures and as large as one of the panels. My hope is that it provides two different sized portals to understand the process of this work,” Rakowitz said.

Paper Object (2021)

As the American-born son of Arab-Jewish Iraqi exiles who fled Baghdad and later Bombay for New York, he found the material for his work among the Arabic grocery chains of Brooklyn, in particular the shop of Charlie Sahadi. Their Iraqi date syrup reminded him of growing up on Long Island surrounded by Iraqi cultural remnants, from the smells from the kitchen to the sounds of their music. Looking back to their nostalgic decor, he often refers to his family as the first installation artists he ever met. 

Inspiration struck especially hard when he realised that although the foods were labeled as products of Lebanon, or Syria, they were actually rerouted from Iraq and surreptitiously exported from Levantine countries as a way to bypass US sanctions. As a sculptor and installation artist, Rakowitz has an uncanny, intuitive feeling for objects and their provenance, as he sees them according to their narrative symbolism, their physical aura, ghostly afterlife.

“That opened up the door for me to wonder where any of these things are from in any of these groceries. It started to make me feel as though these objects were terrified, traumatised, too scared to tell me where they were from, almost like the terror that’s visited through xenophobia on immigrants,” Rakowitz explained. “That empty store made me think of the emptied out museum in Baghdad after the looting in 2003.” Instead of recreating the reliefs and sculptures with material accuracy, he wanted to portray their afterlife as mosaics of wrappers. 

Paper Objects (2021)

He expresses aesthetic and theoretical solidarity with mosaic through his knowledge of art history as only a contemporary artist would. His work to make lost Assyrian temple reliefs and votive sculptures reappear are not just in the style of mosaic, but also painterly collage, literary bricolage and even a form of permaculture composting. His color-coded renderings use blackened newspapers to convey the empty spaces where colonial art thieves removed the majority of Section 1 Room C of the Nimrud temple, now reappeared at Pi Artworks. 

“I also see it as a kind of compost. It is an amalgamation of all these things that end up digested visually, that come from these things that are digested physically. I’m interested in where mosaics and compost can intersect,” said Rakowitz. Where the relief carvings of the demigod Assyrian “apkallu”, or winged-genies from the Akkadian, are visible, they are splayed with meticulously intricate, multicolored food wrappers printed with Arabic script. It is as if the veiled Iraqi agriculturalists are speaking through the likenesses of their vanished past. And their local voices are written below the artworks, evoking the mournful absence from their lands. 

Michael Rakowitz. Portrait by Daniel Asher Smith.

“I wanted it to have the urgency of a material culture that really spoke about the trace of Mesopotamian life in the US, but would also kind of keep the wound alive, that it could never ever be made whole again,” Rakowitz said. “The majority of the groceries that my assistants and I shop at in order to make these works are owned by Assyrians who have emigrated from northern Iraq and who are directly connected to the people who made these palaces and objects in the first place. So it’s this circulation of objects’ materials through history.” 

All images by Pi Artworks and Kayhan Kaygusuz Photography (unless otherwise stated)

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