Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has long been on a mission to revive the lost remnants of Iraq ― physical, cultural and historical ― through an unlikely set of materials: scraps of Arabic and English newspapers, vibrantly colored Middle Eastern food packaging and tin cans that used to contain Iraqi date syrup.
Using such ephemera, his decades-long series, "The invisible enemy should not exist," has resurrected ancient Mesopotamian artifacts that were extracted from their homeland during the last two centuries and ended up in the collection of Western institutions, looted in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 or destroyed by ISIS militants in 2015.
In his first solo show mounted in Korea at Barakat Contemporary in central Seoul, the 49-year-old brings the new chapter of his series to life, where he has constructed "reappearances" of the stone reliefs that once lined the walls of the ancient Assyrian Northwest Palace of Kalhu in the city of Nimrud in Iraq.
The placement and size of these panels ― which depict the winged demi-god Apkallu ― inside the Seoul gallery correspond to their original architectural footprint in the Middle Eastern nation.
"Everything that you're seeing is something that has been destroyed. This is a project that is meant to put the viewer into the position of an Iraqi who might have been in the palace the day before it was destroyed by ISIS," the artist said during a press preview at the gallery.
It also visualizes how Iraqis have always had to look at their history through gaps and fragments, he added, as their relics were continually subject to imperialist excavations and pillage long before ISIS's attack.
The descriptive texts for each of the panels include the remarks made by the Iraqi residents in response to the irretrievable loss of their millennia-old cultural heritage. "Our culture, our history our memories ― they tried to destroy the identity of Iraq," Layla Salih is quoted as saying.
Presented with such voices, Rakowitz's installation becomes an acute reminder that the ruination of artifacts deeply affects the people living alongside them as well.
"When I 'reappear' these objects, I'm not just talking about the objects. I'm talking about the people," the artist noted.
One key motif revisited by Rakowitz as he reflects on the neglected narrative of Iraq's cultural displacement is the country's native date fruit.
In 2004, he came across a can of date syrup in a local grocery store in New York that was marked as Product of Lebanon. It wasn't long after that he found out that its place of origin was actually Baghdad.
After the syrup is processed in the Iraqi capital, the manufacturer would ship it to Syria and have it packed in unmarked aluminum cans. These cans would then arrive in Lebanon and be labeled accordingly so that they can be sold to the rest of the world.
This was how Iraqi companies circumvented the United Nations sanctions imposed against their country from 1990 to sell their products, he explained. But even after the embargo was lifted in 2003, the practice continued.
The realization marked the beginning of his other long-running project, "RETURN."
In 2006, the artist opened a storefront in the heart of New York City's Arab community on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Here, Rakowitz launched what seemed to be an impossible business.
"I wanted to try to import Iraqi dates to the U.S. and (clearly) say they were from Iraq," he said ― despite the inordinate "security" charges levied by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Homeland Security, as well as trade regulations applied to packages bearing the origin of the Middle Eastern country.
The grocery store owner he knew warned that it would be a worthless effort since no money can be made off of it: "He said to me, 'It will be bad business.' And I said, 'But it's good art.'"
To this day, date fruit and its syrup continue to form an important visual vocabulary for the artist to reclaim the forgotten and fragmented narrative of Iraq ― as a building material for the reconstruction of ancient Mesopotamian treasures and as a physical reminder of the shared cultural sentiments among displaced Iraqis.
"Every Iraqi has a date in their genes," he noted.
"The invisible enemy should not exist" runs through July 30 at Barakat Contemporary.
Written by Park Han-sol