Walk around a corner in the Oriental Institute Museum, and you’ll see a 2,900-year-old stone relief fragment showing the head of an Assyrian king. What’s even more striking is everything surrounding the artifact: outstretched arms made of brown newspaper ads, a bow composed of blue cracker wrappers and a gold-foiled sword hanging from the hip. Those dazzling colors represent what was destroyed four years ago by the Islamic State, surviving only in memory and imagination.
Michael Rakowitz’s sculptures might not resemble ghosts—at least, not in the way most would expect. But that’s exactly how the acclaimed artist sees his artifacts, reimagined from an array of Middle Eastern newspapers and Iraqi food packaging.
Since 2007, the Iraqi American artist has worked to recreate the thousands of objects consumed by armed conflict, invasion and looting. Installed at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute is one recent example: a demolished palace relief panel, reconjured in the vivid hues of household detritus.
“I describe these things as ghosts, as a kind of spectral presence—not a reconstruction, but a reappearance,” Rakowitz said. “They can haunt, but for the person that misses the object that became the ghost, they can also reassure.”
Installed as part of the OI’s 100th anniversary celebration, his “reappearance” seeks to do both. An award-winning artist known around the world for his interdisciplinary practice, Rakowitz’s projects explore the personal, the collective and the political. His ongoing series, The invisible enemy should not exist, serves as a reminder of the casualties of war, yet also offers comfort to the diaspora scattered from their homeland.
Juxtaposed with the surviving piece of the original panel from the Northwest Palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, Rakowitz’s work in the OI Museum highlights what he called “a temporary moment of realignment.” Something has been resurrected, but the wound of warfare remains visible.
Measuring 7.6 by 7 feet, the installation incorporates a stone fragment in the OI collection that was received by exchange with the British Museum in 1974, one depicting the crown, face, hair and beard of the Assyrian king. Across from the king stands an assistant in the midst of a libation ritual, dressed by Rakowitz in pink and teal. The spot where the assistant’s head should be is papier-mâchéd in black and gray, marking the existence of another fragment held in London.
“By evoking what has been lost of this panel, Michael juxtaposes the ancient artifact with its contemporary context,” said Christopher Woods, director of the OI and the John A. Wilson Professor of Sumerology. “We’re delighted that his collaboration for our centennial makes our visitors reflect upon the cultural heritage issues at stake today.”
Standing alongside other artifacts in the museum’s Dr. Norman Solhkhah Family Assyrian Empire Gallery, the piece was produced for the OI’s centennial, which celebrates the institute’s century of excavations and field projects in the Middle East and its groundbreaking research on the earliest civilizations. On display at the OI Museum through the 2019–20 academic year, the panel’s colors also hint at the original appearance of the palace relief, which would have been painted in bold colors, including black, red, blue and white.
“We’re thrilled that Michael Rakowitz, a major force in contemporary art, has continued his longstanding collaboration with us,” said Jean M. Evans, the OI Museum’s chief curator and deputy director. “Visitors walking through our galleries will not only experience a century’s worth of excavations, but will also see how these artifacts need to be protected and cared for still today.”