In his first solo show with his new gallery, Green Art, Dubai, Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz hones in on questions arising from his immigrant background, and the way that identity, migration, loss and history circle each other, like puzzle pieces that never quite slot into place.
Born in New York to a Jewish family that emigrated, on his mother's side, from Baghdad, Rakowitz's exhibition, The invisible enemy should not exist — in Dubai until November 23 — pays particular attention to coexistence between groups and faiths in the Middle East.
For Charita Baghdad, which premiered in Greece earlier this year and is now at Green Art, he reconstructs a 1936 Haggadah, or the set of instructions for the prayers and rituals of the Jewish Passover feast. This particular Haggadah, from 1936, was printed in Livorno, Italy for use in the Baghdadi Jewish community — the one Rakowitz’s maternal grandparents were from, and indeed the book is nearly identical to one in his grandfather’s possession.
Rakowitz scanned images of the pages, laying them out on a grid, side by side, contrasting the private, intimate aspect of the Haggadah, as a script for communal ritual, with the public display mode of the artwork.
The Hebrew instructions become icons to look at, complemented by splodges of wax and oil that tell the story of long-ago feasts and the tumult of enthusiastic or unsteady hands. Rakowitz’s own annotations and drawings embellish the pages, giving it, he says, a map-like form.
“When I started to annotate it, a literal cartography began to emerge — where there were two spills ... that I turned into the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,” he says. “And from that I was able to create a map of Iraq.”
Borrowing this mode of objective portrayal, Rakowitz transforms the Jewish text into proof of the crossover among the populations of the Middle East: a map of a territory that encompassed Arabs, Jews, Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds, and Yazidis.
The language used in the Haggadah is a mix of Hebrew — for the prayers — and Arabised Hebrew, or Arabic transliterated into Hebrew script, for the instructions. For Rakowitz, it demonstrates how Iraqi Jews used everyday Arabic, being part of the mix of religions and ethnicities who co-existed in 19th and 20th-century Iraq.
“There is a very nationalist scenario that entails the invention of Judeo Arabic, as a corollary to Yiddish,” he says. When making the work, Rakowitz drew on the work of cultural theorist Ella Habiba Shohat, herself from a Baghdadi Jewish family. Rakowitz says Shohat “makes the point that [Judeo Arabic] creates this false dichotomy — that in order for Jewishness to exist, our Arabness needs to disappear”.
This is the second time Rakowitz has approached Jewish identity in the UAE — previously it was through the prism of food and collective eating, which allowed him to map the migration of people and behaviours that official histories missed.
In 2013, he transformed the Dubai gallery Traffic into the restaurant Dar Al Sulh, serving the cuisine of Iraqi Jews, many of whose recipes he found in eating establishments run by members of the Jewish community who left Iraq in the 1940s and made their way, through fits and starts, to Dubai.
As with Charita Baghdad, his intention was to challenge the idea of Jews as separate — as non-Arab — and he made the dinner he created into a new ritual, mourning the community’s loss but also celebrating its continued existence.
His show at Green Art, which began representing him last year, also contains a suite of panels from his best-known series, The Invisible enemy should not exist (2006–ongoing).
The works are reconstructions of historic monuments and artefacts from the ancient empires that covered the Middle East, remade in papier-mache from everyday materials — sweet wrappers, food packaging, and here old issues of Nineveh magazine, produced in modern Assyrian and English.
The high-meets-low transformation nods to the fragility of the past, but also revives the works, festooning in them in bright and cheerful colours, as if the past was sprinkled with glitter.
The wavy black locks and beards of the warriors are rendered in undulating strips of blacks, blues, and greens, with visible scraps of writing in English and the Syriac script used by the Assyrian language. One, his wings in soft pinks, holds not a weapon, but a bouquet of six flowers, each striped in chevrons of yellow and rose.
The works are bas-reliefs from the Northwest Palace of Kalhu, constructed by Assurnasirpal II on the Tigris in the 9th century BCE. Kalhu was then the centre of the Assyrian Empire, and its ruins — now known as Nimrud — were excavated in the 19th century.
History has not been kind since: most of the bas-reliefs were taken wholesale to the West, primarily to the British Museum but also to sleepy enclaves such as Bowdoin College in Maine. The bas-reliefs reproduced now in Alserkal Avenue fared worse: they were destroyed by ISIS in 2015, after having lasted almost 30 centuries underground.
One of Rakowitz’s strengths has been to show how such political issues are felt personally. And while The invisible enemy reflects on the waves of displaced Iraqis, Charita Baghdad goes even further towards addressing Rakowitz’s own family history.
“The book is a really beautiful [piece of] evidence,” he says. “This was one of the more personal works I've ever done. It was like a meditation on a lot of the pain that many of us go through when we resist ideologies and the construction of national myth.”
Michael Rakowitz's 'The invisible enemy should not exist (Northwest Palace of Kalhu, Room S, Western Entrance)' is on view at Green Art Gallery in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, until November 23, 2022.