“Regardless, if you were for or against the war, there was an agreement that this was a catastrophe, and it was a loss for all of humanity. There was a kind of primal scene of human existence that was very much at risk at that moment,” reflects Michael Rakowitz, thinking back to the April of 2003 when several groups of looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq, following an engagement between American and Iraqi soldier in the building’s vicinity, to ransack its contents over a period of four days. The incident was met with international outcry, followed by attempts to recover Iraq’s national treasures, but only a portion of what was lost would ever be returned to the Middle Eastern nation, not counting all the artefacts that were vandalised and rendered unrecognisable. “And when the outrage about lost artefacts did not translate to anger about lost lives, I became angry because it brought into sharp focus what we all know: the West will apply this kind of care and respect for the objects. Still, they won't afford that same care and respect for the people”.
Rakowitz, whose works are currently being exhibited at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, is an Iraqi-American artist of Jewish heritage who, for around two decades, has developed a practice that revolves around the various cultural histories of his native land and its people. Employing modes of installation and relationist artmaking, he has been working through several series of long-duration projects to create poignant cultural moments that are fuelled by his memories to bring attention to the several injustices that had been meted on the people of his native land through the period of and following the Iraqi War. For example, an early work titled Return, where he revived his grandfather’s business to import Iraqi dates to the United States of America, was driven by both memories of his grandfather making date syrup by hand using a mortar and pestle, and an awareness that date syrup brands found in the American market, which were declared to be the ‘Product of Lebanon’, could actually trace its roots to Baghdad, and this being a tactic employed by Iraqi entrepreneurs to circumvent trade sanctions.