Displacement, it can be argued, has a unique taste of its own. No food item can showcase the effects of time, transport, and dislocation as well as a date. By the time the date reaches its consumer, it often bears little resemblance to the fruit that once grew under the sheltering shade of its palm. Take, for instance, the can of date syrup encountered by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz in a Middle Eastern imports shop in Brooklyn: made in Iraq, the product was then shipped to Syria to be canned before it traveled on to Lebanon, the country its label claimed as its origin in order to circumvent arduous import regulations. Given the opacity of its journey, how can we determine where the date syrup is really from?
Rakowitz is not interested in recreating lost sensuality, nor is he interested in unearthing the primordial ancestries of the stories he tells. Like his muse the date fruit, Rakowitz’s projects take on particular forms precisely because they are diasporic and displaced; it is their distance from the ostensible original that gives them their taste and form. Rakowitz recently hosted a series of dinners in Los Angeles’ Pan-Pacific Park. The artist’s reinterpretation of one of the Palace of Nimrud’s chambers — a stone’s throw from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which owns an alabaster relief looted from the excavations in northern Iraq — showcased stark white gaps amid the colorful food packinging-cum-reliefs, testament to the items pillaged a century before ISIS occupied, and ultimately destroyed, what remained of the palace.
This was not, however, meant to serve as a site of mourning. Rakowitz’s creations linger between what-once-was and what-could-be in order to make room for collaboration. As Rakowitz and his team led conversations on civil resistance, migration, and militarization, guests dined on al pastor tacos marinated in date syrup, an homage to the Lebanese and Syrian immigrants who, upon immigrating to Mexico, adapted shawarma to include pork, the region’s favorite meat. “I was thrilled to find out that the Mexican-style al pastor has made its way back to the Middle East,” Rakowitz confessed as we spoke by phone, he in Chicago and me in Beirut. “They call it Mexican shawarma.”
By tracing the webs of control, knowledge, and access associated with preserving and sharing Iraqi and Iraqi-Jewish food, artist Michael Rakowitz considers how, in the context of a diaspora made by imperial conquest and geopolitical power games, sharing food takes on novel and heightened meaning. In 2018, Rakowitz topped the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square — a massive pedestal reserved for public art projects — with a human-headed winged bull constructed from date syrup cans. This Lamassu — an Assyrian protective deity — stood with its ass turned to the entrance of the British National Gallery and its face toward Parliament, as if to confront the masters of war who had made the decision to invade its country of origin. Alongside the installation, Rakowitz published a cookbook — A House With A Date Palm Will Never Starve — focused on incorporating date syrup into the arsenals of world-famous chefs with recipes influenced by the matriarchs of his family. The goal of each of these projects is not authenticity but hybridity.
Absence is, for Rakowitz, not merely something to be observed; it is a form of agency to be enacted. Most recently, the artist — who abides by Palestinian civil society’s call for a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions — requested that the curators of “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011” at MoMA PS1 “press the pause button” on his video in protest of the museum’s investments in private prisons and ICE detention centers. The appeal to the museum to divest from its board members with ties to the hedge fund Blackrock and the security group Constellis was anticipated earlier this year by Rakowitz’s withdrawal from the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Rakowitz was the sole artist to pull his work ahead of the museum’s show, a move made in protest of the museum’s vice-chairman, Warren Kanders — the owner of Safariland, a company that manufactures tear gas canisters used against civilian protesters worldwide. Rather than viewing these boycotts as a refusal to engage in tough conversations, Rakowitz insists that such absences provide fertile ground to sow conversations that grow hybrid futures, and hold those in power accountable.
Molly Theodora Oringer: Your work, whether it is through the creation of contemporary dishes with traditional Iraqi ingredients or the reconstruction of destroyed Mesopotamian artifacts, deals heavily with the role of hybridity and non-static identity formation. Food in particular has a central role in your repertoire, but it isn’t specifically tied to notions of authenticity.
Michael Rakowitz: I think this idea of hybridity is not necessarily something one realizes early on in life. In my case, it’s something that came to the surface as I started to realize the ways in which difference was being enforced growing up in the United States in the ‘70s and ‘80s — a time when Arab visibility was relegated to disposable characters in movies. I grew up in the presence of many elements of cultural heritage in the house I was raised in, whether it was the Arabic that was being spoken, what was hanging on the walls, or the food that was coming out of the kitchen. I always talk about how my grandparents were the first installation artists I knew because they created this totally immersive environment. I grew up hearing these stories of this place called Baghdad being valorized, which I thought was just part of everyone’s Jewish culture. The food on the table during Jewish holidays was just everyday Iraqi cuisine, so you can imagine my shock when I tried a matzo ball for the first time in college.
It wasn’t until the First Gulf War in 1991 that I really understood the fact that I was going to be forever burdened by this thing called hybridity. It was the first time — in real time — that I saw pictures of Baghdad, all through this filter of green-tinted night vision images being broadcasted on CNN. I started to wonder: are those buildings my grandparents were talking about throughout my childhood the ones currently being blown up? Will l never be able to visit them? Suddenly, the term “Arab Jew” was something I started to hear from my mother a lot. It was followed by [cultural critic] Ella Shohat’s 1992 essay “Dislocations: Reflections of an Arab Jew,” which brought the concept into the US academic mainstream. Up until that point, this form of hybridity just seemed like such an unfortunate thing to claim, especially because my grandparents identified as Arabs. They identified not so much just as Iraqi, because Iraq as a nation-state was still a very new idea when they left, and they knew that these were boundaries that were being formed by outside powers. They considered themselves to be Baghdadis, the same way that I would consider myself a New Yorker. In a way, this notion of Arab-Jewishness almost feels like over-identifying, though, of course, you sometimes have to exaggerate for people to get the point. This idea of hybridity is something that Ella has been so inspiring and helpful for thinking about because she talks about the notion of Arab-Jewishness as something with a hyphen that acts as a sort of visual bridge.
Hyphenation, though, does the important work of suturing. It’s not just remembering, it’s re-membering. It’s putting the pieces of a dismembered body back together. This declaration of hybridity becomes an important way of reminding people that Jews were Arabs too. It pushes against the process of de-Arabization that existed and continues to exist in places like the State of Israel. Early immigration of Jews from West Asia and the Arab World to Israel involved an enforced amnesia. They were forced to adopt the synthesization of nationhood, which meant forgetting their Arab selves. When Ella Shohat, [writer and curator] Regine Basha, and I embark on projects like Dar Al Sulh, it’s really about making sure the food doesn’t fall into the category of the nostalgic. Nostalgia in itself is ok; it’s a desire to go home. But it’s important that our work resists falling into the category of the folkloric. The project was sly in a sense, because as much as we’re saying that we’re cooking Iraqi-Jewish cuisine, it’s really just Iraqi cuisine; that’s the big joke. These footways that exist in the world, this myth of Jewish cooking—whether it be gravlax and sour cream or Iraqi-Jewish food — all these things associated with so-called Jewish food comes from the territories and geographies that Jews called home for many years. In that sense, the project shows that we felt like we belonged to these larger communities until the rise of nationalist ideals: Zionism on one side and Arab nationalism on the other created an impossible situation for communities like the Jews of Iraq. Hybridity is, for me, unfortunate because it has to foreground something that adds on to this idea of “Arab.” It can’t just be about a kind of collectivity, saying we all used this kind of baharat spice mixture, for instance. Once there’s a rupture, things become much more specific, which can become dangerous because it points to exclusivity. What I think we’re trying to do with this project is to rebuild those connections, trying to de-exoticize it a bit. To say, well, there are Jews from Iraq, but we considered ourselves to be Iraqi.
MTO: Your new cookbook project allows chefs to take this one quintessential Iraqi ingredient — date syrup — and go wild with it in the way that they choose. It rejects the concerns of what thinkers like Lital Levy and Shimon Ballas warn against in relation to the concept of the Arab-Jew inasmuch as they caution against reading identitarian politics into the past. Rather than projecting the concept of Arab-Jew onto a social world that no longer exists, your project opens a space for imagining Iraqi cuisine — and Iraqiness in general — in a fluid, open manner that is largely subject to personal interpretation. What was it like working with these chefs?
MR: There was a lot of joy in it, which I appreciate tremendously. The project looks at the notion of reappearing and focuses on antiquities and cuisine as a way to physically mark something that has been removed. The cookbook was developed in conjunction with “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” (2018), in which I built a lamassu statue clad in date can tins, which sat atop Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth with its back to the British Museum. I think about the date syrup tins in relation to many of my ongoing projects. In 2006, I tried to import Iraqi dates to the US based on the fact that I found a can of date syrup at Sahadi imports that was listed as a product of Lebanon. The owner, Charlie Sahadi, told me that he had something that my mother would love, as it was from Baghdad. That’s when I learned that the date syrup was actually from Iraq, but was sent first to Syria and then Lebanon to be canned and labeled so that they could circumvent US sanctions, a process that still continues today.
This can of date syrup did more for me than Warhol’s cans could ever do. I realized this fact while building this lamassu, which required 10,000 tin cans of date syrup to construct. I started scheming about how to use the date syrup while thinking about the tragedy of this other aspect of Iraqi land — the date palm — suffering the same fate as its people. The pre-war number of 30 million date palms decreased to 3 million after the US invasion and war. Both the lamassu and the cookbook serve as ways of pointing to that ecological disaster — that literal desecration of the land. With all those cans being used it was a little like, well, what about the date syrup? I wanted to have a way to have the date syrup spilling out of these tins and into the bellies of people. Of course it’s naive to think it’s going to do this, but I couldn’t help but think that if there were more of a demand for date syrup, maybe there would be more date palms and there would be this literal repair of the land.
This can of date syrup did more for me than Warhol’s cans could ever do.
The idea of working with different chefs, to talk about this ingredient with them, seemed like a great opportunity to discuss the wider implications of the materials I was working with. Being able to introduce date syrup into the repertoire of different cooks who are amazing alchemists was a way to get them aware, to make Iraqi tradition visible in a way that wasn’t limited to Iraqi chefs: it’s chefs that we all know and love, like Alice Waters, Marcus Samuelsson, Nathan Hammel, Yotam Ottolenghi, Claudia Rodin. The cookbook became a kind of way to taste the sculpture.
MTO: The process of culinary transmission seems to offer you the possibility of inverting the hierarchies that we’ve come to associate with how food is usually made and consumed. Your project “Spoils” (2011) was an intervention in collaboration with the Park Avenue Autumn and Chef Kevin Lasko that involved pairing venison with Iraqi date syrup and tahini, which was then served atop pieces looted from Saddam Hussein’s palace during the US invasion of Iraq. And, in the case of the Chicago food truck iteration of your ongoing project “Enemy Kitchen,” US veterans of the Iraq War served as preppers and servers under Iraqi refugee chefs.
MR: What I’m interested in with any of these projects is the way in which I can investigate things like hospitality, and understand that hospitality and hostility share the same root. The words are both rooted in the Latin hospes, which can mean stranger or guest, but is also the base of the word enemy. I’m interested in the moments when you can fill the stomachs of your guests but also turn them. The conversations being had around the meal are sometimes not totally congruous with what’s in your mouth. It’s about finding ways to enact some of those power relations but also find moments where they can be transcended.
With regards to “Enemy Kitchen,” it’s not just about Iraqi refugees acting as chefs and American veterans acting as sous chefs and servers. Many of the American vets that I work with are connected to organizations like About Face and Veterans for Peace; they returned from Iraq knowing full well that they didn’t learn anything from the people they occupied, without allowing Iraqis to lead them on how they could be a part of building their country anew. So many of the veterans realized during their deployment the kind of humiliation and debt they were enforcing, so this was, for them, an opportunity to rewind a bit, to have a new scenario play out. The relationships formed on the food truck and in the kitchen preparing the food were crucial, and not the kind of thing they, nor I, expected. The public saw something unfold in front of them that, for everyone engaging with it, created moments of both comfort and discomfort.
MTO: I’m interested in the ways in which this uncomfortableness and unresolvedness pairs with the notion of loss in your work. I’m specifically thinking about how in the “Invisible Enemy” notions of loss and repatriation acknowledge that material and cultural losses are not so easily ameliorated despite the best of intentions. Rather, it seems, you see this destruction and displacement as a place to start rather than to recreate what once was. Your work asks us to think about what it means to lose antiquities and homelands in a particular geopolitical place and time.
MR: I think that the ways of attempting to provide closure have become quite destructive. Take studio Factum Arte’s project of constructing 3D prints of the relics destroyed by ISIS and giving them to the Iraqi government, as if they are going to be a way of providing closure for the loss. It’s a really disturbing thing. The fact is, you can’t 3D print the DNA of the people that perished alongside those artifacts. For me, it’s also about a process of decolonization. People talk about this word a lot, and I’m interested in problematizing it to a point where it’s a process, not an endpoint. It’s a process of doing things that are unsettling. As soon as we talk about how to give closure, it becomes as useless as a useless apology; it’s more for the person who is saying it and not about accountability or actually tending to traumas.
My project of constructing the lamassu out of vulnerable materials like date syrup tins is twofold: it allows the work to show that it’s about reappearance while acknowledging that this ghost will soon disappear again; but it’s also about the provenance of these different objects, materials, ingredients that are products of Iraq (but can’t say that they are). What makes an antiquity so valuable is its very provenance. These commodities are as petrified as any immigrant that can’t say where they’re from. They, too, are the recipients of xenophobia. These things like date syrup cans are the absolute base traces of these cultures that survive in other places. These objects become things that also become a certain steadfastness, or sumud in Arabic; despite all of the destruction and displacement there’s actually some kind of — I hesitate to say joy — but at least a moment of reprieve when someone decides to make this recipe from a place that they were torn away from.
MTO: I’d like to build on these notions of unresolvedness and refusal to settle into the comfort of the so-called closed case. You were the first and only artist to withdraw from the Whitney Biennial before its opening. Your withdrawal from the show, like your refusal to participate in any exhibitions in Israel, points to the generative space of absence; yet your work revolves heavily on the notion of cooperation. How do you think about the two in tandem?
MR: When I withdrew from the Biennial I wasn’t trying to be uncooperative. I was operating consensually, I thought, with the curators. It was a private decision that was made public because the news of my withdrawal leaked. I had written to the curators [Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley] with a lot of gratitude, as I felt it was the two of them who really got a critical conversation around the role of people like Warren Kanders started. The letter that preceded my own, in which staffers demanded that their employer respond to allegations that the Museum’s vice chairman owned two companies that produced tear gas canisters and smoke grenades used against asylum seekers on the US/Mexico border and protesters in Gaza and Puerto Rico — among myriad other places — was made public. It had over 100 signatures from Whitney staff on all levels up to the senior curatorial staff, all of whom were questioning the role of so-called philanthropy that is inextricably linked to the violent oppression of dissent. My decision to pull out of the show was grounded in wanting to think with the curators; it was about being dedicated to working with them, without sinking to participating in such an egregious state.
The curators understood my position. I met with the director and explained that it was absurd to me that, internationally, we have such high standards about how to safely exhibit artwork — we make sure it’s shown in the correct humidity and temperature lest it be compromised — yet we are willing to overlook the sacrifices of human life by showing art in conditions that are directly involved in human maiming and death. Of course, I never thought that my withdrawal was going to change anything on its own. People often respond to my steadfast position to not participate in exhibitions in Israel by claiming that withdrawal is a stance of not doing anything. But, actually, refusal does a lot. I was trained as a stone carver: a medium that is all about the removal of materials. It is a subtractive process that is also about liberation — Michelangelo used to say that he was liberating the form that was already in the stone. I think about these removals, withdrawals, and withholdings similarly; they are acts that will help us get to a more liberated form in the end.