When cultures collide: building visibility and unity with art

As the child of immigrant parents from distinctly different cultures, Northwestern University’s Michael Rakowitz knows exactly what it’s like to live in a place where different cultures meet. 

His artistic output, which often serves as a placeholder for decimated cultures and displaced people, will be on view in two major public arenas starting Sept. 16 with the opening of a new Chicago exhibition, followed by the March 2018 unveiling of a new sculpture in London. 

Rakowitz is a professor of art theory and practice in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. His mother is the daughter of Arabic Jews from Iraq who migrated to the United States in the 1940s, and his father was born in Brooklyn to parents with Hungarian, Polish and Russian ancestry. 

He was raised in his grandparents’ home in the Great Neck region of Long Island, New York, in surroundings that featured carpets and artwork from Baghdad and home-cooked Iraqi meals on the table. 

His upbringing allowed Rakowitz to experience the security and normalcy that comes from living in a household where different traditions came together without too much friction. A crucial moment in his artistic life came in 1990 when he witnessed media coverage of the Persian Gulf War and saw the place that his grandparents fled from being invaded and destroyed by the place they fled to. 

“All of the work I’ve been wrestling with since has looked at invisibility as a form of marginality and at the precarious status of different citizens and different objects when they’re made invisible or voiceless,” Rakowitz said. 

Rakowitz’s work, which encompasses drawing, sculpture and installation, largely has been presented outside of galleries and museums and in the public realm. His projects include custom-built inflatable shelters for the homeless and a food truck called “Enemy Kitchen” that serves Iraqi food prepared by Iraqi refugee chefs with the assistance of Iraqi War veterans. 

His largest body of work is the ongoing project, “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist,” which seeks to reconstruct more than 7,000 artifacts from the Iraq Museum that were destroyed or looted in the aftermath of the Iraq War. 

Rather than seeking to replace the irreplaceable, the project looks at the measurements of the lost objects from a database at the Oriental Institute or through Interpol and reconstructs them using the packaging of foodstuffs, newspapers and other materials of cultural visibility commonly found in Arabic neighborhoods in the U.S. 

Public work on view during 2017/18 

Rakowitz’s artwork will be on view this year in two major public spaces. Sept. 16, 2017 through March 4, 2018, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents the exhibition Michael Rakowitz: Backstroke of the West, which will feature several works from “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist.” 

Also on view will be Rakowitz’s project “Spoils” from 2011, in which the artist served a meal on Saddam Hussein’s dinnerware. His pop-up food truck “Enemy Kitchen,” will appear on the museum plaza on designated dates and serve free food to Chicago’s hungry public until it runs out. 

London’s Fourth Plinth commission awarded Rakowitz the opportunity to build a sculpture in Trafalgar Square, one of the world’s premiere outdoor public art spaces. He is working on resurrecting a life-size replica of a Lamassu, the protective deity that stood at the gate of Nineveh until it was destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015. 

The winged bull will stand 14 feet high and be constructed from more than 3,000 empty metal Iraqi date syrup cans. The sculpture will be unveiled in Trafalgar Square in March of 2018 and be on view through February of 2020. 

“At a time when the situation in the Middle East is worse, displacing refugees from Iraq, Mosel and Syria, and the immigration issue is worse, it heartens me and gives me a lot of hope for London to want the sculpture at this time. 

The Lamassu becomes a surrogate space holder for the people who have left this place and the artifacts that have been removed,” Rakowitz said. 

On teaching 

Rakowitz has taught for more than a decade at Northwestern. He instructs both undergraduate and graduate art students and teaches a freshman seminar for non-arts majors. 

“One of the things I try to prepare for and accommodate in my classes is to allow everyone to enter with their own abstract language, their own set of concerns and their own frames of reference. Art theory and practice classes are a great space for interrogation and a certain amount of critical and analytical thinking. 

Showing students that there is never really a right and wrong answer can be a liberating surprise for students in other fields of study,” Rakowitz said.“My hope is that my students come out embracing how art can confound us and understanding that confusion can be cherished and not be something that alienates.” 

By Stephanie Kulke

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