Michael Rakowitz (b. 1973, Great Neck, NY) is an Iraqi-American artist working at the intersection of problem-solving and troublemaking. In 2018, he was the recipient of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts and the Fourth Plinth commission in London’s Trafalgar Square. In 2020, he was the recipient of the Public Art Dialogue award and the Nasher Prize. Between 2019 and 2020, a survey of Rakowitz’s work traveled from Whitechapel Gallery in London, to Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Torino, to the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. He was recently granted a commission for a public project on the topic of Archaeology and Migration Flows for the Municipality of The Hague. Rakowitz lives and works in Chicago.
Portrait credit: Brett Novak
Photo 2: Image credit: Arturo Sanchez
Courtesy : the artist and Jane Lombard Gallery
Photo 3: Image credit: Gautier DeBlonde and Caroline Teo
Courtesy : the Mayor of London
IRAQ / USA
Letter to an Encyclopedic Museum Curator, 2020 – ongoing.
Video-letter, 10 minutes 43 seconds.
The context for this letter is a project the artist began in 2006 called The invisible enemy should not exist. The centrepiece is an ongoing series of sculptures that attempts to reappear, life-size, the 7000+ archaeological artefacts looted from the National Museum of Iraq during the 2003 US invasion, using Middle Eastern food packaging and Arab-American newspapers.
In 2015, this project grew to include archaeological sites destroyed by groups like ISIS in the aftermath of the US-led invasion. An example of this is the demolished Lamassu that stood at the Negal Gate of Nineveh since 700 BCE, and which the artist reappeared on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2018, built from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans. In another extension, Rakowitz and his studio assistants have been faithfully reconstructing each of the rooms in the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II’s 9th century BC Northwest palace of Nimrud (near present-day Mosul in northern Iraq). When exhibited in a gallery or a museum, blank spaces are left to indicate the previous removal of certain panels, now located in the collections of various Western museums.
In winter 2020, the artist began to wonder how this project could go further in acknowledging the continued history of displacement in Iraq, and more than that, push toward restitution. In response to an invitation from a major American museum to display some of these panels, Rakowitz sent the following letter.
RETURN, 2004 – ongoing.
Video, 19 minutes 48 seconds.
RETURN documents the events from 2006 when the artist attempted for the first time in 25 years to import Iraqi dates to the US. Despite the cessation of UN sanctions, no Products of Iraq were available there. His storefront became a place where the Iraqi refugee crisis was disseminated through the dates’ tumultuous journey. After the shipment spoiled in Syria, 10 boxes were airlifted to NYC. The parcel underwent inspection by Homeland Security and finally reached the store, where customers flocked, eager to taste the fruit that had interrogated and scandalised government agencies from Baghdad to New York. A fruit that asked questions.