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Borrowed Landscape (30.3193° N, 48.2543° E)

On the northern end of Kyoto, Japan, is a shrine called Entsu-ji. It features a rock and moss contemplation garden. Behind the garden, in the distance, one can see Mount Hiei and a lush green forest that stands between the shrine and the summit. A caption at the shrine, much like a museum accession label, lists where the stones in the garden are from, what type of moss is growing, and itemizes the mountain as part of the garden. This technique of enlisting pre-existing natural elements in a formal arrangement is called shakkei or "borrowed landscape."

As an artist of Iraqi-Jewish descent, much of my work has attempted to suture fragments of a world my mother, my grandparents and millions of Iraqis have lost. In my practice, the Mesopotamian date palm has been a constant symbol, an element of that shared landscape and one whose decimation has mirrored the fate of the Iraqi people themselves. In the 1970s, when Iraq was the world’s chief exporter of dates, there were over 30 million date palms in the country, with over 600 different varieties growing. By the end of the Iran-Iraq War, that number had been halved to about 16 million. At the end of the US-led invasion, less than 3 million remained.

The surviving date palms, especially in the south of Iraq, continue to dwindle, as much of its “black land”—so named because of the shade the plentiful palms used to provide—has become uninhabitable due to war, pollution, and climate change. Disease plagues many trees, causing their trunks to go flaccid and their crowns to fall off, as if beheaded. The stumps are left to burn under the sun, appearing scorched.

My experience of visiting the oasis town of Al Dhaid was a visceral one, as if I had been transported to Iraqi terrain that I knew of only through stories or photographs. My project for the Sharjah Biennial is to simply call this place in Al Dhaid Borrowed Landscape (30.3193° N, 48.2543° E). The coordinates correspond to Al Seeba, Iraq, where this scene, unfortunately, also exists. While the causes of decimation differ, ranging from conflict to ecological catastrophe and neglect, the result is the same. The one is a portal to the other, a place to contemplate another place, to grieve, but also to make commitments for replenishment and return.

—Michael Rakowitz, 2023


Shaped by his Iraqi-Jewish heritage, Michael Rakowitz’s work braids together seemingly disparate elements of cultural history, mythic symbolism, contemporary geopolitics, Pop culture, food and looted artefacts. RETURN (2004–ongoing) is a video work chronicling the revival of his family’s import-export business. The artist’s grandfather, an Iraqi Jew, was exiled in 1946 and settled in New York, where his formerly thriving company shuttered in the 1960s. In 2004, the artist reopened it, hoping to facilitate shipments to Iraq for the diaspora against the logistical hurdles of the war. Shortly after sanctions that had made direct export from Iraq to much of the west impossible were lifted, Rakowitz also explored the feasibility of importing something clearly labelled ‘Product of Iraq’ to the USA. His research culminated in the import of dates sourced from an Iraqi company.

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