6. Michael Rakowitz From the Diaspora

By Daniel H Rey

        Iraqi, and Jewish, and Arab, and American. When it comes to Michael Rakowitz, the list probably goes on. I write this with a degree of admiration. I resonate with fellow artists who hail from multiple places and negotiate overlapping identities. Myself, living in latitude 25º north (UAE), raised in latitude 25º south (Paraguay), coming from a multi-ethnic Colombian household with Christian-Jewish traditions, I have something to say: Michael, you get me.

Myself, living in latitude 25º north (UAE), raised in latitude 25º south (Paraguay), coming from a multi-ethnic Colombian household with Christian-Jewish traditions, I have something to say: Michael, you get me.

Rakowitz, one of my favorite artists, has incubated most of his practice from a diaspora standpoint. With all the identities I mentioned, and maybe others that remain less obvious, I relate to Rakowitz's work on a personal level. Rakowitz responds to politics, questions about overlapping identities, and long-standing inequalities from his place as an artist but also as a concerned citizen. As I move through his work and get my friends to confirm how much I follow his artistic journey, I grapple with the question: to what extent do artists get to talk about realities that they or their families no longer inhabit? 

At a first glance, it’s all about revisiting traditions and framing the unexpected. I learned about Rakowitz’s work in college by way of his Enemy Kitchen project. In it, US Army Veterans formerly deployed in Iraq serve Iraqi food from a food truck in Chicago. I then learned about his piece Dar Al Sulh, in which Rakowitz hosts a dinner serving his grandmother’s Iraqi Jewish dishes –the project’s own Arabic name celebrates the coexistence of faiths in Iraq and the broader Arab world. The projects, as I see them, were not about the food just “becoming art” or about calling something art for the sake of it. It was about their framing. If one masters the art of framing an experience with the identities, stories, and resources available, one is most certainly making art. In fact, Rakowitz shows that art comes to life no matter the physical distance between the artist and the places his work evokes.

With the right framing, art can inspire others to do their own personal research. After learning about Rakowitz’s work, I organized a party called Racha (short for sriracha and colloquial Spanish for “luck”). I covered my wall with the history of Huy Fong Sriracha sauce as a commentary on war, asylum, and my ancestors’ (Latin) American dream. The menu was only potato and cassava chips with Sriracha sauce. In the spirit of my troubled identity, the evening’s playlist featured “unexpected” mixes of Finnish reggae, Cambodian son and merengue, Angolan-South African EDM, and more. The party was a statement to having left my homes, having fallen in love with new places, and continuing to make sense of each of them. Living in diaspora(s) reminds us that there are places in our memories that we will likely never get to escape but merely recreate. Michael Rakowitz seems to know that a bit too well, and today, we get to see a sizable body of his work closer to the very region that, by embracing as a research subject, has made him art-world famous.

Some of Rakowitz’s works currently live in the Arab World even if he is not currently in the region himself. Earlier this year, he premiered his first solo show in the Middle East and Asia. His namesake exhibition runs until November at the Jameel Arts Centre.  It is deeply historical and displays finished works along with the process notes for many of them. The pieces oscillate between pop culture and thorough research about historical reparations, trauma and collective identity. We see works about housing projects in the United States, aboriginal resistance in Australia, temporary solutions for homelessness, a sculptural survey of Armenian architecture in Istanbul, and even a radio room and mini-gallery that unravels historical parallels between the Beatles and the Pan-Arab movement.

1. Rakowitz’s namesake show at the Jameel Arts Centre. 
 2. Michael Rakowitz intervened Libyan flag as part of The Breakup, on view at Jameel Arts Centre. 

3. Michael Rakowitz, piece from The invisible enemy should not exist. On view at Jameel Arts Centre.

Beyond that, the namesake exhibition also reminds us of the value of reconstructing the material history of our ancestors’ lands. From the current show, the works that hooked me the most are The invisible enemy should not exist and Lamassu. In them, Rakowitz engages with ancient artifacts that have been destroyed or looted during times of unrest in Iraq. He reconstructs them and covers them in food packaging that is apparently common to Middle Eastern diaspora households in the United States: Puck cream cheese, canned date syrup, Maggi seasoning, and others. Through these works, Rakowitz becomes a pro-tempore historian who relies on his Iraqiness as an access point into the politics of reconstruction, reparations, and remixing identity post-violence. Using everyday packaging as the material for these artifacts injects a new, migrant, and consumerist dimension into Iraqi historical reconstruction as he sees it. The packaging also reclaims the shared histories of artifacts whose crafts, labor, symbologies, and former witnesses cannot be fully recreated nor brought to life. Somehow, the work brings to light how diasporas get to outlive their artworks, their glories, and, needless to say, their own irreversible ruins. With this, Rakowitz reminds us that it is always possible to make art from home and about home, even if ‘home’ lives in each person’s subjective memory.

4. Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist. Close-up of one of the pieces.

5. Michael Rakowitz, Lamassu. Winged bull made of date syrup cans. 

As I continue to digest the depth and complexity of Rakowitz’s artworks and plan my next visit to the exhibition, I reach some realizations. Nobody but ourselves can determine how we explore our identities. Nobody but ourselves can rewrite the politics of history and reconstruction. Even the most collective of historical traumas carry individual, contemporary repercussions. And beyond that, nobody but ourselves can determine the scope and depth of our explorations as artists, historians, and members of diaspora(s). With these lessons in mind, I hope that one day I get to explore the Colombian conflict, the Paraguayan dictatorship, the Crusades, and the migratory dreams of my ancestors as deeply and impactfully as Rakowitz has explored his own intrigues. Thank you, Michael Rakowitz, for showing me that it is possible to have multiple identities, multiple questions therein, and tell a story with every single one of them. After many more of our individual and visceral explorations, I hope that we meet again soon. 

6. Michael Rakowitz (left) and Daniel H Rey.

Daniel H Rey is a member of Global Art Daily’s Editorial Board and member of the Youth Assembly at the Jameel Arts Centre. These words are his own and do not represent any institution nor were they requested by any third party. Unless otherwise stated, photos were taken by the author of this article.