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.

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