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Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist

(Panel H-13, Room H, Northwest Palace of Nimrud) (detail), 2020


The most challenging presentation comes from the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York with the exhibition, Michael Rakowitz: Nimrud.

Rakowitz, a descendant of Iraqi Jews, takes on the region’s history of cultural abuse from both Western relic hunters and Muslim extremists using the once magnificent Room H from the Northwest Palace of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud (formerly known as Kalhu) as his example.

“The Northwest Palace was a sprawling palace and administrative center built in the ancient city of Kalhu by Ashurnasirpal II (King of Assyria from 883 to 859 BCE), who had designated the city as the capital of his empire,” Katherine Alcauskas, curator of the exhibit, told “The walls of the palace were lined with stone into which was carved bas-relief imagery and an inscription stating the King's might and many great deeds, all then painted in bright colors.”

For this exhibition, Rakowitz has re-created only those stone panels, 7-feet-high, using Arab-language newspapers and wrappers from food products imported from the Middle East and sold in specialty grocery stores in Chicago where the artist lives.

“In the middle of the nineteenth century, British archaeologists, along with American missionaries and others, uncovered the reliefs and dismantled them, sending a majority to institutions in England, France and America,” Alcauskas explains. “The reliefs in this palace, along with a couple others in the ancient Assyrian empire, are often taught in college-level survey courses as foundational artworks in the history of the field.”

Nearly 400 of the 600 Assyrian reliefs were removed from what is now Iraq and were acquired by private collections and public institutions throughout the Western world, such as the British Museum, London; Musée du Louvre, Paris; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Brooklyn Museum; Yale University Art Gallery; and numerous small liberal arts colleges in the northeastern United States, including Hamilton College (a stele now in the Wellin’s collection entered the College’s collection during that period).

“Rakowitz’s work implicates the museum as a colonial entity and calls attention to the paradoxical mission of preserving damaged and incomplete objects, arresting their function and immobilizing their historic context,” Alcauskas said when announcing the exhibit which debuts at a reopened Wellin, October 19 and runs through June 13, 2021. “It also underscores the different treatment granted to refugees versus ‘treasures’ of art history; whereas museums across the United States might readily accept artifacts into their collections, paradoxically immigrants are not as welcome in the country itself.”

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