Artist Michael Rakowitz describes himself as someone who creates encounters, structures, and objects—his sculptural practice is “as an exertion of pressure,” he recently told Brooke Jaffe for “ARTnews Live,” our ongoing IGTV series featuring interviews with a range of creatives.
Rakowitz discussed how influences from his Iraqi-Jewish heritage have impacted his artworks, starting with his grandparents’ home in New York after they migrated to the United States in 1946. “I think about it as being something that was arduous for them, being put in the position where they could no longer live in the city that they loved, identifying as Baghdadi’s when they left,” the artist recalled. “They could have made their lives a lot easier for themselves by just assimilating.”
Rakowitz detailed to Jaffe various sensations and experiences of his family home, from what was on the floors and the walls to the music and the scent of cumin. He likened his grandparents’ preservation of culture to art making, adding, “I call them the first installation artists that I ever met.”
For Rakowitz, the “magic” of sharing food with others has served as a frequent source of artistic inspiration. He recounted shopping in 2004 at a Brooklyn grocery store that his grandparents had once frequented. He found a can of dates that had been listed as being imported from Lebanon. Upon further investigation, Rakowitz learned that the fruit was originally from Iraq but, in an effort to avoid heavy scrutiny and U.S. trade sanctions, had been instead shipped to Lebanon, where its label was changed.
“What I saw in front of me was an object that couldn’t tell me where it was from, an object that was too terrified to tell me where it was from,” he said, “as if the pressures of xenophobia in this country had been exerted on this object.”