Hamud-Helou: The Sweet and Sour Art of Michael Rakovitz

We’ve surpassed ourselves this time,” said London mayor Sadiq Khan at the unveiling of the latest sculpture for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square earlier this year. And it’s easy to see why. The work, from Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, is a spectacular reconstruction of the lamassu, a winged bull statue that guarded the gates of the ancient city of Niveneh in Iraq, where it stood for over 1000 years before Islamic state destroyed it, and videoed their vandalism, in 2015.  A 14ft-long statue made from 10,500 Iraqi date syrup cans, this bold work brought tears to the eyes of the Iraqi Londoners who gathered to its unveiling. It is part of a long-term project The Invisible Enemy Should not Exist, which aims to reconstruct the 7000 objects looted from the National Museum of Iraq following the US-led invasion of that country in 2003.

“The looting of the Iraq museum was one of the first rare moments of pathos,” says Rakowitz, in a phone conversation from his home in Chicago, where he lives with his wife Lori Waxman, an art critic for the Chicago Tribune, and their two children. “We could all agree, whether we were for or against war, that it was a catastrophe, that it wasn’t just an Iraqi problem, but a historical problem. And the outrage about lost art turned into outrage over lost lives.” Rakowitz says that when he started The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, in 2006, the idea was to see these recreated artefacts as “ghosts” that would haunt art galleries. “Of course I see all those artefacts as surrogates for the people of Iraq; these things become a stand-in.”

Born in New York in 1973, Michael Rakowitz has a bachelor of fine arts from Purchase College, New York and a master of science in Visual Technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is professor of art theory and practice at Northwestern University. His work has received multiple awards, including the 2012 Tiffany Foundation Award, a Sharjah Biennial Jury Award, the 2003 Dena Foundation Award and the 2002 Design 21 Grand Prix from UNESCO. He has exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Neue Gallery in Kassel, Germany, London’s Tate Modern, the British Museum and UNESCO Paris. His work often explores the relationship between the two countries of his hyphenated identity: Iraq, where his maternal grandparents lived in Baghdad, and the US, to which they migrated during the 1940s.

The date syrup cans that clad his Assyrian Fourth Plinth lamassu sculpture are a crucial part of the project; dates are a recurrent theme in his work.  Rakowitz points to Iraq’s once thriving date industry – the country’s most significant export until oil took over. The country had close to 30 million date palms prior to the Iraq war of 2003; fewer than three million are left today. Still, Iraqis – including Iraqi Jews, many of whom ended up in Israel after a mass migration in 1951 – have a visceral, emotional connection to those date palms and their produce.

Supplies for the lamassu project came from Iraqi companies that pulled empty cans off the assembly line. “The part I always get excited about in these projects is how it can spill into realms that are not so centrally about the artwork,” he says. As well as signposting Iraq’s incredible date palm legacy, Rakowitz hopes his sculpture will also drive interest in, and demand for, the date syrup itself. Referring to the depleted uranium and other munitions used in Iraq during the American-led invasion of 2003, Rakowitz says: “There is this real shared demise of not only the cultural losses and not just the human catastrophe, but also the ecological catastrophe, the literal loss of land. I’m interested in these non-ethnocentric actors and presences that don’t get spoken about as much.”

He also notes the metaphorical power that dates wield in Iraqi culture: “The first thing put in a baby’s mouth is a date, so that its first taste of life is sweet,” he says, adding that the fruit is central to the three mono-faiths. “In Islam, the prophet Mohammed talked about how one only needs to eat Ajwa dates [a variety native to the Arab region]. In the Passover Seder in Iraqi Jewish culture you use dates and walnuts for the charoset. And if you look at the Koran in Suriyat Maryam [which narrates the story of Mary and her son Jesus] there is a passage that says Mary relieved her birth pangs by chewing on dates. All these things become a part of this contiguous landscape that isn’t broken up into borders or nation states and doesn’t reflect sectarianism of any kind – that landscape is the thing I’m always coming back to in some way when I’m thinking about Iraq.”

This is not the artist’s first work with dates: in 2006, in a New York project entitled Return, Rakowitz sought to import Iraqi dates for sale to the US: clearly labelled produce of Iraq, a year after US sanctions had been revoked, the idea was “to cast a light on something about Iraq that wasn’t about war and oil.” Rakowitz resurrected his grandfather’s Baghdad-based import-export company “almost as a way of breathing life into the lungs of an Iraq that is now unfortunately long gone”. But in an unexpected twist, the dates got stuck in transit during the height of the Iraqi insurgency. “The dates were in a line of cars that was four days long at the border with Jordan, as people were trying to flee the insurgency,” says Rakowitz. After four days in a hot truck, the dates ended up spoiling – all of which served as a metaphor for the people trying to escape violence in Iraq, along the same exit path.

As a companion to the Fourth Plinth statue, Rakowitz is working on a cookbook of date syrup recipes. Other culinary projects include Enemy Kitchen in 2003, with a food truck outside Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where US veterans of the Iraq war served traditional food from that country. That mushroomed into Enemy Kitchen workshops and events across various cities. In 2014 the artist set up Dar al Sulh, a temporary restaurant serving Iraqi Jewish food, in Dubai. This supper club, whose name means “domain of reconciliation” was also hosted last year at London’s Mosaic Rooms, with guests sampling a dinner drawn from the recipes of Rakowitz’s Iraqi-Jewish grandmother.

“I’m less interested in drawing up a conclusive history of what everyone’s experiences were in Iraq,” says Rakowitz, “and more interested in pointing to the fact that we there was a coexistence where people’s religious identity was not how you labelled one another, to recognise that this period of time was not so long ago. It’s not too late to look at those times – not as nostalgia, but [as] a blueprint for how things could be.”

On his father’s side, Rakowitz’s family were Jewish immigrants to America from Russia, Poland and Hungary. He describes the influence of his father as a supporter of the American civil rights movement and as a doctor. “He was interested in talking about the ways in which art could attempt to heal or suture,” says Rakowitz. “One of the things that scars [do] is they communicate that there is a wound – but that the wound has closed. There’s something about the constant desire to address and mend the breach that is very much coming from my father.”

This interplay of conflicting emotions is “where I’ve always wanted to make work, in the place where you feel good and you feel bad at the same time,” he says. “I think about the way that we speak about Iraqi cooking – hamud-helou, or sweet and sour, as a lot of cuisines do. The best art for me does that. And the lamassu hopefully does that in a quite literal way: date syrup is a harbinger of better things to come, but is being used to define a wound – and to make more present the fact that something is missing.”

Loss and absence – of people, of objects, of a sense of place – also recur in his 2015 project on the Armenian genocide, in Istanbul, entitled The Flesh is Yours, the Bones are Ours, a series of cast ornaments and moulds made from a plaster itself comprising ground animal bones. “I focused on the artists who made all the architectural flourishes on Istanbul’s buildings,” he says. “All of those craftspeople were Armenian, so I started to imagine what it would be like if all those flourishes on the buildings disappeared the way Armenians disappeared.” Rakowitz explains that the animal bones used in the plaster reference the 80,000 dogs driven out of Istanbul during a modernising sweep in 1910 – five years ahead of the Armenian genocide. The dogs were taken to the nearby barren island of Sivriada and perished. “I excavated some of the bones with an animal activist group in Istanbul,” says Rakowitz. “In my exhibition, there is a point in which you encounter the bones of dogs I’ve used in the plaster cast to recreate the architecture of the city. And when people came into that space, that is where they lost it – it had something to do with looking at something else in the world that suffered alongside ourselves, that in order for people to get to the [Armenian] victims of these atrocities, it often had to go through a strange route. It is something I’ve learned through all my work: this idea that something that’s displaced or analogous–a surrogate–is what makes us understand things that are unfathomable.”

Along with his ongoing project The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, Rakowitz is also working on paraSITE, which has been going for the past twenty years and involves making custom-built, transportable plastic shelters for homeless people. Current work also includes a collaboration with grassroots activists in Cleveland, Ohio along with the family of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was shot and killed by police in 2014 while he was playing with a toy gun. Rakowitz explains that police testimonies over the incident stated that officers could not have known Tamir’s gun wasn’t real, because the orange safety tip denoting a toy gun had been removed. This terrible detail formed the basis of the project, A Colour Removed, which aims to strip Cleveland of the colour orange as a statement on the removal of the right to safety. “In this act of reversal of the way that you have colour solidarity – like in Ukraine with the Orange Revolution, everybody starts wearing orange scarves or the Green Revolution in Iran where people start to wear green – I thought: what would it mean if that boy couldn’t exist because he didn’t have the colour orange, this colour associated with safety, on his gun?” This city-wide participatory project calls for residents to bring their orange objects to display repositories. “Those orange objects become votives or surrogates for another story, and a way for people to intersect with a tragedy like this – a way that gets those uncomfortable discussions about race and privilege going.”

As with London’s lamassu sculpture, the Cleveland project also has a food component: “Because in these weird entanglements that can happen with a lot of my projects, Tamir in Arabic means dates,” says Rakowitz. “So the kids in the neighbourhood are getting dates grown in Palestine in the city of Jericho, and going round the neighbourhood in Cleveland selling them.” Which brings us right back to where we started: to the date palms, their cultural weight, and all the wounds that they also carry.

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist will be on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square until March 2020. Michael Rakowitz’s work will be the subject of a major survey at the Whitechapel Gallery, London next year.

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