Artist Michael Rakowitz on Iraq's painful past and it's bright future
Michael Rakowitz creates ghosts. Not in the literal sense, but ghosts of a world we’ve lost. The American-Iraqi artist draws on complex histories, politics and cultures to create highly charged, large-scale installations. This month he launches his first solo show in the Middle East.
ESQUIRE MIDDLE EAST: What drew you to becoming an artist?
MICHAEL RAKOWITZ: My parents always stressed the importance of art on me. We would regularily visit museums and always had a certain kind of critical viewing experience. We once went to the British Museum and my mother showed us an ancient wall mural about the Lion Masks at Ishtar festivals. She sat me down on a bench in front of it and she explained that, “this is from where your grandmother and I are from”.
ESQ: Did that blow your little child mind?
MR: Completely. My mother would always ask questions like: “why do you think this is here?” At a very early age I understood the importance of museums, but also how they were built on a foundation of colonialism and extraction.
ESQ: Growing up in the
US with Iraqi heritage must have been strange with the country so synonymous with war. How did you deal with it?
MR: It was kind of heart-breaking as a kid, but I looked at my grandparents like the first installation artists that I’d ever met.Everything in their house, from their carpets to their walls to what was coming out of the stereo during family celebrations, everything was from Iraq. What was coming out of the kitchen was definitely from Iraq as well! I am so grateful for that because that must’ve been really hard for them to still hold onto the remnants of their culture after being made to leave.
ESQ: Tell us about
a project that was inspired by your roots?
MR: I collaborated on a project with my mother called ‘Enemy Kitchen’. We provided free Iraqi food using old family recipes. We had US veterans of the Iraq war, and served them food onto paper replicas of Saddam Hussein’s china.
ESQ: You also rebuilt the Lamassu structure blown up by ISIS, in London’s Trafalgar Square. What led you to recreate that?
MR: I saw the looting of the Iraqi National Museum on TV during the war and the destruction of Palmyra by ISIS a few years ago. I was outraged, and I started thinking about what it would mean for these objects to come back like ghosts that would haunt galleries.
ESQ: If money was no object, what would your dream project be?
MR: Oh, money is never really been something that’s held me back. I have to say that I feel very fortunate to have done the work that I’ve done so far and I feel very lucky to have been able to work with the communities that have welcomed me in. The dream would be if some of these projects became obsolete because then that would mean that the problems would have been solved and things are changing.
Jameel Arts Centre. April to August 8, 2020. jameelartscentre.org