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"Michael Rakowitz: Nimrud" opens today at the Wellin Museum of Art
Michael Rakowitz (Installation view of new work, on view for the first time, commissioned by the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College.) Panel H-13, Room H, Northwest Palace of Nimrud, from the series The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2020.

CLINTON, NY.- Michael Rakowitz: Nimrud is on view from October 19, 2020 through June 13, 2021, featuring all new work, including a major commission created for the exhibition. The exhibition is curated by Katherine Alcauskas, Chief Curator at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and former Collections Curator and Exhibitions Manager at the Wellin Museum. Using Arab-language newspapers and wrappers from food products imported from the Middle East, Rakowitz, an Iraqi-American visual artist (b. New York, 1973) is recreating Room H from the Northwest Palace of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud (Kalhu), constructed by Ashurnasirpal II between 883 and 859 BCE and first excavated by British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851.

Says Tracy L. Adler, Johnson-Pote Director of the Wellin Museum, “We look forward to welcoming visitors back to the Wellin, in particular for the profound teaching opportunities that the Michael Rakowitz: Nimrud exhibition will present. Although access to our physical space will be limited for safety reasons, we will be able to share the exhibition with our online community through a newly commissioned video, dedicated programming, and an original publication. I look forward to furthering the mission of the Wellin during this difficult time, examining complicated and challenging social issues through the lens of art and the voices of contemporary artists, and building community through open dialogue.”

Accompanying Room H is an installation of sculptures created for this exhibition reproducing lost, destroyed, missing, or at-risk artifacts from the Middle East.

Explains Alcauskas, “Rakowitz’s work implicates the museum as a colonial entity and calls attention to the paradoxical mission of preserving damaged and incomplete objects, arresting their function and immobilizing their historic context. It also underscores the different treatment granted to refugees versus “treasures” of art history; whereas museums across the United States might readily accept artifacts into their collections, paradoxically immigrants are not as welcome in the country itself.”

Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, and delays in the production of the new work, the installation of Room H will be completed in phases, and its completion is expected in the spring of 2021.

In his recent work, Rakowitz has focused on the Northwest Palace at Nimrud (Kalhu) in his ongoing effort to complicate the narrative around cultural patrimony, especially as it pertains to the Middle East. In the mid-nineteenth century, nearly 400 of the 600 Assyrian reliefs were removed from what is now Iraq and were acquired by private collections and public institutions throughout the Western world, such as the British Museum, London; Musée du Louvre, Paris; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Brooklyn Museum; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; and numerous small liberal arts colleges in the northeastern United States, including Hamilton College (a stele now in the Wellin’s collection entered the College’s collection during that period).

Part of a reception suite, Room H was originally lined with seven-foot-tall carved-stone reliefs, including winged male figures and an inscription detailing the ruler’s many achievements. For this exhibition, Rakowitz has re-created only those panels that were in situ in Room H when the remains of the palace were destroyed by the jihadist group the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2015. Areas from which the reliefs had already been removed by 19th century archaeologists are left blank, resulting in what Rakowitz calls “a palimpsest of different moments of removal.”

In various series created over the last twenty years, Rakowitz has presented physical objects and their representations (from ancient artifacts to imported dates) as a metaphor for the displacement of Iraqis and their attendant culture, especially in periods of political conflict. Past projects have explored this issue in the contexts of World War II, the Six-Day War, and the Iraq War, for example.

Says Alcauskas, “Addressing themes such as the fraught relationship between preservation and destruction, the nature of authenticity, and historical archaeological practices that have filled museum storerooms throughout Europe and the U.S., Rakowitz reacts not only to our present moment but also to the centuries, if not millennia, of looting of ancient sites—both legally sanctioned and illegal, often occurring in times of foreign occupation.”

To make his vivid reproductions of the ancient carved-stone reliefs, Rakowitz uses Arabic-language newspapers and packaging for food products imported from the Middle East to the U.S. and sold in local Middle Eastern grocery stores in Chicago, where the artist lives and works. This material references the panels’ original bright colors while acknowledging, particularly in the inclusion of modern Arabic writing, the current-day Middle Eastern populations that exist both in and outside of Iraq, in the diaspora. Room H—one of several the artist has made to date—is part of an ongoing series entitled “The invisible enemy should not exist.” (The name of the series is a literal translation of Aj-ibur-shapu, the main processional avenue that led to ancient Babylon.)

Accompanying Room H at the Wellin is a selection of never before exhibited small-scale sculptures from the same series, which the artist began in 2007 and continues to expand upon. The sculptures replicate artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad during the U.S. invasion in April 2003—an event Rakowitz considers a global tragedy on account of the loss of an important shared heritage. Alongside those works that “reappear” looted artifacts are examples of a newer but related subseries entitled May the Obdurate Foe Not Be In Good Health—an alternative translation of Aj-ibur-shapu—based on art objects from ancient Damascus and Palmyra that have been stolen or destroyed during the ongoing civil war in Syria or are in danger of being lost. The artist has begun to call these sculptures “reappearances” rather than reconstructions, “ghosts” rather than simply replacements of the originals in order to call attention to their irreplaceability.

Adds Adler, “Michael Rakowitz is a global figure in the art world whose work addresses history, politics, and cultural heritage, particularly as it relates to the Middle East. By recreating the monuments and artifacts that have been removed and stolen from the region, he confronts the reality of this removal and the loss it evinces. As a teaching museum, the Wellin Museum aims to have difficult and timely conversations, and to complicate the narrative around what it means to societies when their identities are disassociated from the spiritual and cultural artifacts that define them. We need to recognize the role that museums historically played as storehouses of cultural objects imported from around the world and implement real change in our policies and objectives. As museums seek to redefine themselves in the 21st century as spaces of engagement and education, there is a necessary reckoning associated with that transformation.”

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