Most visitors to a museum just assume that the art is there for a reason—after all, a phalanx of individuals from the institution’s director to the team of curators, to the artist, all must have approved of its position. But for the Iraqi-Jewish artist Michael Rakowitz, nothing is taken for granted. As a young boy, his mother took him to visit the British Museum in London and posed the question “What is this doing here?” referring to the reliefs featuring a lion hunt of Ashurbanipal on view in the Assyrian galleries.
Rakowitz’s mother was born in Iraq, and left with her parents in 1947 amid the rise of nationalism that swept the country. Instead of succumbing to pressure to assimilate in their new home of Long Island, New York, they staunchly maintained their identity.
The artist’s ongoing project, (2007-), is rooted in his understanding of museums as sites of colonization, recreating some 8,000 artifacts looted from the National Museum in Iraq amid the U.S. invasion, and ultimately expanding to include works stolen from the Assyrian palace of Nimrud, destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s “Extended Play” series, Rakowitz explains the impetus of those works, which he calls “ghosts,” of the original destroyed works. “If a ghost is going to properly haunt,” he says, “it has to appear differently than the entity appeared when it was living.” The works are fashioned from Middle Eastern food packaging papier mâchéd as reliefs.
The project is intended to “put the viewer in the position of an Iraqi inside that palace the day before ISIS destroyed it” the artist explained, “and to show how much of their history they didn’t have access to, and the gaps that they were forced to be looking at and looking through.”
“The object in the museum holds its value because it can tell you where it was from,” Rakowitz said, while the product-wrapped works, “that was the skin that these artifacts should have to wear when they come back as ghosts.”
Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Play, below.
This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.