The return of the exile

June 14, 2020

Michael Rakowitz uses elements from history to highlight the disintegrating dream of a united Middle East

Michael Rakowitz, the Iraqi-American artist, is recognised in Pakistan, especially for his work in the 2nd edition of Lahore Biennale 2020. His video installation The Ballad of Special Ops Cody features a toy soldier whose name was once used as a threat by militants, but later discovered to be an American infantry action character made to precise detail, and sold solely on US military bases in Kuwait and Iraq.

In the video, this figure jumps into an American museum cabinet filled with devotional statues from Mesopotamian civilization, and suggests liberation for them, asking them to leave their temporarily-opened display cases and return to their region.

The video maps the New World Order, in which both oppressor and the oppressed are locked in situations that are uncanny and occasionally ironic. Politics is a main motif for Rakowitz who employs elements from the past — artefacts, heritage, history — to narrate the disintegration of an entity that may well be described as the Middle Eastern dream.

A creative person tends to dream in several modes: archives, literature, and other forms of art. That way, an artist is a perpetual traveller (not a tourist). For Michael Rakowitz, who has never been to Iraq, the journey is multi-fold. Rakowitz’s ancestors, the Iraqi Jews, like their brethren in Nazi Germany, faced persecution. Over 180 Jews were in killed in ‘Farhud’, the pogrom against the Jewish population of Baghdad in 1941. The memory of this genocide is resurrected in Rakowitz’s installation What Dust Will Rise? (2012), currently part of his solo show at the Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai.

The exhibition (March 11 to November 22) includes eight major installations made over the last two decades. Both in The Ballad of Special Ops Cody and What Dust Will Rise? Rakowitz addresses the present through cultural artefacts of past.

In another installation, arranged like a museum display, you come across a prayer book which belonged to Iraqi Jewish community but is “presented here in Dubai, where it returns to the Arab world, repaired and functional”. The installation comprises books in different combination, old volumes as well as carved in stone, referring to a lost word and lost voices. The work also invokes the loss of monumental statue of Buddha from Bamiyan, dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. Rakowitz worked with Afghan students in Bamiyan caves. Outcome of that workshop are stone pebbles with ropes (part of the installation), connecting to the ancient practice of Buddhist statuary. As the artist explains: “One of the things that I feel very committed to, is working against this interruption of traditions, of craft”.

However, there are several interruptions in the course of culture — not delinked with politics and power. Like Taliban, the ISIS also targeted the past, besides daubing the present with blood of innocents. For them, past was a desert where human presence ought to be wiped out.

Back then, a political personality, a lead singer, an alleged terrorist/freedom fighter; all were selling dreams — of another reality, another option. However, they failed, and remained broken and disillusioned.

In that war against history, a number of historical artworks and artefacts were destroyed or looted— during the reign of the ISIS, and the years of anarchy after Saddam Hussein. Michael Rakowitz in his The Invisible Enemy should not Exist has displayed some of these “artefacts from ancient Iraq through life-size reconstructions made with food packaging familiar to Middle Eastern diasporas in the US and elsewhere”.

A hood, a necklace, figurines in praying postures, a bull, reliefs of Assyrians period, with people, patterns and Lamassu, (an Assyrian human-headed winged bull that was torn down by the ISIS in 2015) are recreated with materials that have labels, banners and signboards of eateries, tea stalls and food items in Arabic text, English description or transliteration, seldom superimposed with lines of Cuneiform script.

Recreation or reconstruction are problematic words and positions, because how can you remake the past once it is removed and remote? VS Naipaul observes “… the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn’t exist in real life”. You can only manufacture the present. Talking to Marisa Mazria Katz for The New York Review of Books, Rakowitz confirms that work “is not a reconstruction, but something I’ve started calling ‘a reappearance’. If you have something that is a ghost — that needs to haunt — it can never be what it was before; it can never be the gypsum, or the limestone, or the alabaster that these objects were. It needed to wear the skin of the object that couldn’t tell you where it was from”. In a sense, his work relates to Rashid Rana’s I Love Miniatures in which a portrait of a Mughal emperor from a traditional Indian miniature painting is fabricated with pixels— pictures of commercial bill boards installed in a modern city. This is a response to conversation or convergence of East and West in a postcolonial society.

In another installation from the present show, The Flesh is Your, the Bones are Ours (2015), Rakowitz represents how the East meets West. In Istanbul (where else!) Documenting Art Nouveau building facades in Istanbul as record of buried histories, a chronicle of cultural exchange is offered; at the same instance a viewer is aware of other interactions; displacements occurring in history/region. This is portrayed by rearranging the “excavated skeleton of one of 80,000 dogs exiled from Istanbul and left to die on the barren island of Sivriada in 1910.”Commenting on the phenomenon, the same bones are composed as the pattern of a frieze from an Armenian church in Galata, Istanbul.

In our cultural context, title of this installation The Flesh is Your, the Bones are Ours rekindles the words of parents who used to utter this phrase on leaving their children in the care of a school teacher — a carte blanche to inflict punishment, to shatter the blissful state of innocence. Like the fractured dream of united Arab states, the idea of a unified Middle East, initiated by Gamal Abdel Nasser. During his rule, Egypt and Syria formed a confederation United Arab Republic (UAR), later involving Yemen; which Iraq was to join.

But the edifice of a greater Arab unification crumbled. Rakowitz recalls that episode, through his installation Breakup (2010), “that juxtaposes the disbanding of The Beatles with the collapse of the Pan-Arab project”. Again, in a museum-like setting, you see press clippings of the Egyptian president, John Lennon, Yasir Arafat, and ponder upon the difference between them, or their similarities (in one work the face of Nasser is added with heads/hair of four members of Beatles).

A political personality, a lead singer, an alleged terrorist/freedom fighter, all were selling dreams — of another reality, another option. However, they failed and the Middle East remained broken and disillusioned. The utopia had its expiry date, like many others in the Third World nations.

Best illustrated in his Dull Roar (2005) (an oversized vinyl model of a building from St Louis in the 1950s, demolished less than 20 years ago) that inflates and deflates, denoting how great models, whether a housing project or unification of states, are flimsy. Their existence is only in memory (or art, the collective memory of a community). This is affirmed by Rakowitz in work after work, where past and present embrace like lovers!

The return of the exile