In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the 4000 year-old poem from Mesopotamia, king Gilgamesh, puts on new robes and a sash after heroically slaying a monster. That’s when the goddess of love and war, Ishtar sees him and falls in love. Ishtar was the Queen of Heaven and the goddess of the Eanna temple at the city of Uruk, located in Iraq today.
Since ancient times, cloth and objects, such as a sash, a rug or a statue, have been symbols of civilisation, preserving narratives to future generations. When a society loses such items, the collective memory they represent is lost.
Descendant of an Iraqi Jewish family forced to flee their country, American artist Michael Rakowitz uses contemporary materials from Arabic culture such as food packaging and newspapers to reconstruct ancient objects that Iraq lost during the war.
His installation “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” brings back the archaelogical artifacts that were looted from the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad or destroyed in the violent period after the US invaded the country in April 2003. With the help of more than 30 assistants, Rakowitz recreates these lost artifacts using materials from waste that strike a Western viewer as a surprise because of their Arabic lettering and distinctive brands.
On the upper floor of the Frac Lorraine – a contemporary art centre in Metz – Rakowitz invites his audience to take a look at his monumental panels; reappearances of the destroyed relief sculptures of the ancient Assyrian Palace of Nimrud (present day Mosul). Resembling wall carpets, they are made from layered patchworks of foodstuff packaging such as Maggi hallal chicken soup, Iraqi date syrup cans, halal raspberry jelly dessert, chewing gum and sage tea.
The installation places the audience in the position of an Iraqi who is inside the National Museum of Iraq the day before ISIS destroyed it. But even back then, the room was already quite empty because most of the artifacts coming back to life here were on show in Western museums.
The room exudes a feeling of loss: it is not the meticulously reconstituted panels that the viewer is drawn to first, but the void left behind by the absence of the real panels, which feature in museums abroad. Stickers on the exhibition floor show the names and current homes of the missing artifacts. The viewer has to bend down to read them – as if kneeling before a gravestone or a temple. It is a startling effect, illustrating the immeasurable power of colonisation and capitalism in depriving societies of their legacy.
The artifacts that now reside in Western institutions show the discrepancy between immigrants who are labelled as “aliens” even if they are lawfully admitted to a nation and the archaeological objects that are immediately granted permanent residency, and are indeed never allowed to travel back home again.
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Aj-ibur-shapu), borrows its name from a street dating back to 574 BC which ran through the gate of Ishtar, in ancient Babylon. One translation of the name is “may the arrogant not prevail”. Rakowitz’s work, which he describes as showing “ghosts that have come to haunt Western museums” is devoid of this arrogance. He acknowledges the imperfections of his reconstructions – as well as the impossibility to repair the past.
The food packaging that is Rakowitz’s primary tool alludes not only to the lives of people who were victims of the war but also those that fled their homeland. He commemorates the displaced Iraqis – and those who died – through objects sharing the same fate.
Rakowitz also includes pieces destroyed by the Islamic State at the Assyrian sites of Ninua (Nineveh) and Kalhu (Nimrud). In order to identify the missing pieces, he uses data from resources such as Interpol, the Iraq State Board of Antiques and Heritage, the National Museum of Iraq and others.
As a contemporary storyteller, Rakowitz proposes alternative scenarios to a history that has put the Middle East’s heritage and its people at a disadvantage. He has successfully negotiated the return of some Iraqi artifacts to their hometowns, and proposed joint custody between Eastern and Western institutions, in exchange for giving his own works to Western Museums for free. In doing so, he is one of the rare artists of our time who have changed the practice of some of the world’s most powerful institutions.
Michael Rakowitz’s first solo show in France, “Reappearances” can be seen in the FRAC Lorraine, in Metz. The exhibition runs until 14 August. The museum is open from Tuesday to Friday between 14:00 and 18:00 hrs and on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 and 19:00 hrs. The address is 1 bis, rue des Trinitaires, Metz.