LONDON — Following Baghdad’s fall to US troops in 2003, more than 15,000 artifacts were looted from the National Museum of Iraq by thieves. The presence of ISIS went on to facilitate further destruction of ancient culture in the country, yet looting and pillaging in Iraq is nothing new. Western archaeologists have been laying their claim over its heritage for centuries to allow Iraqi history to be displayed in Western museums, taken through colonial means. American-Iraqi artist Michael Rakowitz has been working to reconstruct these “(g)hosts” of the past since 2007, mostly using food packaging from Iraq to create sculptures, one of which — the Lamassu, a winged deity guarding the gate of Nineveh destroyed by Daesh in 2015 — has been on display in London’s Fourth Plinth since March 2018. And now, a full display of this project is on view as part of his career retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery, which looks not only to the specters haunting Iraq, but the whole world.
Rakowitz’s reconstruction project, titled The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007–ongoing), includes statues, vases, and the decorative friezes of the ninth-century palace of Nimrud. At times, chunks of the food-covered replicas are missing, in correspondence with fragments that have been destroyed. The whole series — intended to remind us of the specters of the past — began after Rakowitz discovered that the cans of Lebanese date syrup he was buying in the US were actually produced in Iraq, but were branded with Lebanese packaging and exported out of Lebanon, allowing Iraqi companies to bypass United Nations sanctions. Subsequently, Rakowitz — whose mother is Iraqi-Jewish — worked to import and sell Iraqi dates in the United States — re-opening a store once run by his grandparents — with the express aim of keeping the “Product of Iraq” label. These works made from Arab foodstuffs thus remind the Western viewer that Iraq, though it has been partially destroyed, survives and continues to live, eat, and breath, just like everyone else.
Alongside the bricolage monuments to ancient Iraqi civilization, Rakowitz also displays drawings with scribbles about individual objects, like the Mona Lisa of Nimrud, that perished for whatever reason in recent history. And below each large relief, Rakowitz includes a small label about where it was located and when it was destroyed, along with a quote about its fate — the specters of these objects lingering long after they’re gone.