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Michael Rakowitz’s | Backstroke of the West

Michael Rakowitz is an Iraqi American artist based in Chicago. Rakowitz’s practice focuses on this activity of estrangement through the detournment of icons, which are deeply embedded in his Jewish-Iraqi heritage. His first museum survey, Backstroke of the West, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago presents large-scale projects such as May the Arrogant Not Prevail—a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate made out of yellow and blue candy and Pepsi wrappers with Arabic writing [featured below]. The title comes from a translation of Aj ibur shapu, the name of the avenue in the procession of the gods taking place before the gate. Another possible translation is “the invisible enemy should not exist.” This is, incidentally, the title of another work on view at the MCA also dealing with reconstruction of artifacts through detritus of candy wrappers and sugary substances.

Beginning in 2007 and ongoing, the objects in The Invisible Enemy should not exist represent artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad. The replicated objects act as a cultural surrogate in the absence of the original.

Such is the case with the headless (possibly female) figure [seen above], who turns her body to the left. Fixed in motion, but also stuck to her pedestal. She reminds us of a Greek Kouros, a style of sculpting developed in parallel time to Nebuchadnezzar’s ancient Babylonian gate. Instead of being painted in the former traditional style, her bust is colored with the red/orange torn papers with a scan code cupping her right breast, indicating her fusion with the current times.

Though Rakowitz’s oeuvre combines pop-culture with ancient symbols, which generates a poetic understanding of form, like in his project The Breakup (2010), which relates the breakup of the Beatles to the breakup and displacement of peoples, his projects often have very tangible social dimensions, forgoing object hood altogether. The Breakup (2010), commissioned for Radio Amwaj in Ramallah, Palestine, invited the acclaimed Palestinian band Sabreen to perform five Arabic-inflected Beatles songs.

Especially commissioned for the MCA, Chicago is Rakowitz’s relational project Enemy Kitchen (2012–ongoing). Enemy Kitchen focuses on Iraqi recipes brought to the United States by Rakowitz’s mother. In a video about the project, Rakowitz explained that the idea began during the US invasion of Iraq. He noted the erasure of Iraqi culture in the United States and wanted to “enlist Iraqi hospitality” to make a project that was entirely based around the idea of sharing food. Enemy Kitchen brings together Iraqi refuge chefs and American veterans of war to cook together and ultimately engage in an activity of sharing, which is in direct opposition to the roles inscribed to the participants in Iraq.

In another version of the project, Every weapon is a tool if you hold it right, part of SAIC’s exhibition “A Proximity of Consciousness” (2014), Rakowitz has focused on the fishing and preparation of Masgouf, considered the national dish of Iraq. Rakowitz project focuses on the import and export of a fish that was brought over to the States in the 1970s to clean ponds. The fish now reaches Iraq by way of China and Israel because it is unsafe to eat in the Tigris River since 2007 due to the large amount of corpses floating within the water.

Rakowitz’s practice, once again, engage in the Duchampian activity of detournment but rather than simply create alternative objects, this activity is aimed at creating a place of equivalence for dissimilar peoples. Thus, his work resonates as deeply utopian, as well as elegiac, imploring the viewer to imagine collective activities and states of beings that could bring a more resolute force of peace and solidarity.

Backstroke of the West, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago was curated by Omar Kholief. It is on view until March 4rth.


Featured Image: Michael Rakowitz, May the Arrogant Not Prevail, 2010. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Marshall Field’s by exchange. Image courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

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Vanessa Gravenor is a writer and artist based in Berlin. She has written for N.Paradoxa, ArtSlant, Sleek Magazine, EXPO (Chicago), and Bad at Sports. She was the assistant editor for the book the Proxy and Its Politics: On Power and Subversion, Archive books, 2017. When she’s not writing she is making videos on the entanglement of cybernetics and trauma. Her bot form can be found on twitter as @femmepicaro

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