Photo of original relief panel with the outline of a person looking at it. An illustration.


During a visit to Williams for his exhibition The invisible enemy should not exist, conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz shared his thoughts on the role and responsibility of museums, the relationship between artworks and ghosts, and how his work connects on many levels to two of the college museum’s most important works of ancient art.

To whom do antiquities belong? It’s a complicated question, one that the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) engages with often in considering its own objects and exhibitions. A new exhibition, The invisible enemy should not exist (Room Z, Northwest Palace of Nimrud), on view through April 19, “adds yet another layer of complexity, nuance and possibility to our understanding of the role of the museum and our responsibility as both stewards and citizens,” says Lisa Dorin, WCMA’s deputy director for curatorial affairs and curator of contemporary art.

The invisible enemy places two of the museum’s most important ancient objects—massive stone reliefs from the 9th century BCE palace of King Ashurnasirpal II—in conversation with re-creations of seven other panels among those lost when the palace was destroyed by ISIS in 2015.

The new panels are the work of artist Michael Rakowitz, who draws inspiration from his own Jewish Iraqi heritage and his family’s history of exile. Food was central to his experience growing up in the United States, he says. And so, he uses wrappers from Middle Eastern foods and Arabic-English newspapers available to Iraqi communities living in the States to “reappear” these ancient objects as part of a long-term project.

In November, Rakowitz took part in a panel discussion led by Magnús Bernhardsson, Williams’ Brown Professor of History and chair of Arabic studies, that included Old Testament and Hebrew Bible scholar Alison Acker Gruseke ’82 and Clark Oakley Fellow Kirsten Scheid. Rakowitz also spoke with art history, Arabic studies, creative writing and history classes about WCMA’s and other museums’ complicated histories of collecting.

WCMAs Assyrian reliefs were the first of their kind to come to an American college or university. They were a gift in 1851 from the Rev. Dwight Whitney Marsh, Class of 1842, who procured them from British archaeologists during a mission to Mosul, Iraq. The panels were in storage for most of the 20th century until 2001, WCMA’s 75th anniversary, when they were permanently installed in the Stoddard Gallery. Now they anchor The invisible enemy, which presents for the first time Rakowitz’s re-creations alongside panels that survived, intact, for 3,000 years. As Dorin writes in the exhibition brochure, “Weaving these two narratives together across time and place, the exhibition invites a reconsideration of what objects ask of us.”

During his visit, Rakowitz discussed the relationship between the archeological excavations of the 19th century and the modern-day looting and destruction that link WCMA’s panels and his work to each other. As he related during the panel discussion:

“It was the existence of an antiquities market that allowed for these museums to be looted. ISIS destroyed the stuff that was too big to sell. What they could loot, they sold on the black market, and that liquidation of those antiquities into finance is what helped fund their war machine. It was important for me to point to the fact that this is a story about displacement and destruction that does not begin and end with ISIS in 2015. It actually begins in the 1840s when [British archaeologist] Austen Henry Layard and the protagonists or antagonists, depending on your politics, descended on that site to displace those reliefs and to bring them into Western collections. Some of these pieces, when they were sent to the West, were broken up to save on shipping. And, in some cases, those Western collectors did not want to pay for the shipment of an entire panel, so excavators came up with a wonderful technique where they could simply slice off a piece of the gypsum. So a museum like the British Museum could have a piece that was the most palatable for their audience, which was the head. And this rubs up against some of the quotes that are paired with the work [in the WCMA exhibition], where people talk about how the beheadings were done very much like the beheadings of the Palmyrian people alongside the ruins of Palmyra or the Assyrian Christians alongside Nimrud or Nineveh when ISIS destroyed them. [Some of the work makes] an uncomfortable reunion, as I’ve allowed pieces to be temporarily un-beheaded, suturing them together.

“I had the fortune to get to know Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, the former director general of the National Museum of Iraq when it was looted, who was really generous in opening up about all the different stories about why it was looted. Everyone heard rumors that Uday Hussein [Saddam’s eldest child] was running a smuggling ring, but Donny would show me an object and say, ‘This piece has a really nice story. It was taken by a group of people who were in the museum at the time it was being looted, and they felt really bad that they couldn’t protect everything. So, they decided to take this home and put it in very, very protective storage. And then when there was amnesty for the looters, and also the American army was finally protecting the site, they brought it back. And they said, ‘Don’t ask us for our names. We just wanted to protect this because we knew if we didn’t, it would be sold.’ In other cases, Donny very matter-of-factly told me that when you’re facing the devastation of your country, and you’re thinking about keeping your family alive, loot[ing] was a ticket out. There was this liquidation of the past to save the present and preserve a future.”

During the discussion, Bernhardsson noted that Rakowitz’s own family’s heritage “was essentially destroyed or wiped out in Iraq” and pointed out that the artist’s work “creating new objects and giving old objects new life” is born of destruction. Rakowitz then shared some of his influences:

“My grandmother and grandfather fled Baghdad in 1947, and I grew up in their house on Long Island. What was on the floor was from Iraq. What was on the walls was from Iraq. What was coming out of the stereo was from Iraq, and what was coming out of the kitchen was definitely from Iraq. They immersed us in the place they had left with a lot of sadness and confusion. They were very proud to be from Baghdad, and they considered themselves Arab Jews. They had a bittersweet feeling about what they left behind, which I’m grateful for, because when one goes through those traumas, you can also go the other way, which is to forget. So then, at 16, I saw CNN images of [a completely different] Iraq—buildings being blown up, places I would never be able to visit. The place my grandparents fled to was destroying a place they fled from, and that created a split for me. I’ve always thought about trying to piece together those stories, mending those things, but always keeping the scar visible.”

Rakowitz’s vibrant works are a nod to the original reliefs in King Ashurnasirpal II’s palace, which were imbued with color but lost their tint with the passage of time. Today the gray panels in WCMA’s collection stand in stark contrast to the artist’s bright re-creations, which Rakowitz made from Arabic-English newspapers and materials used to package Iraqi food imported to the U.S. He explained to the audience how the complexities around importing Iraqi food also influenced his work:

“In 2004, I was living in Brooklyn, and I went to a grocery store my grandparents frequented. I saw a can of date syrup with Arabic writing and beautiful swaying palm trees, and when I brought it to the cash register, [the proprietor] said, ‘Your mother’s going to love this. It’s from Baghdad.’ But the label didn’t explain the syrup’s provenance, and he also said that importing products from Iraq would be bad business. I thought it would be good art.

“I reopened my grandfather’s import/export business [after the sanctions were lifted], bringing in goods from Iraq. I spent a lot of time in the empty store, which got me thinking about the empty museum in Iraq after it was looted in 2003. I started to look at all these things that surrounded me, like these date syrup cans that had to repress their provenance, and it made me think of the antiquities that were valuable because of their provenance. I started to think about antiquities coming back not as a reconstruction but as a reappearance, as a ghost that could haunt us. And so the reconstructions of these antiquities that are listed as missing, stolen, destroyed or unknown now wear the skin of a veiled provenance. And the desire was to create a situation where the viewer was going to be put into the position of an Iraqi looking at that space the day before ISIS destroyed it; to look at that room with its removals visible. This [exhibition] follows very closely some of the archaeological theories about what they think the color schemes were.

Photo of original Rakowitz panel with the outline of a person looking at it. An illustration.

“So, I’m making these things out of the detritus of Middle Eastern food packaging and the Arabic-English newspapers—which help newly arrived refugees settle—that are given away for free in the supermarkets where I buy the food, and I realize my studio looks a lot like my mother’s pantry. I’m using detritus to make things that have disappeared, but I’m making them out of materials that sustain those communities and allow for them to survive. There is joy in that packaging. There’s color. And it allows for the color to return to those reliefs. We see them all as monochrome, and it’s a little bit like blood returning to the veins. You get your color back. But they’re also made out of vulnerable materials, and it’s guaranteed that, even though it’s reappeared, one day it will disappear. But you’re not a very good ghost unless you disappear at some point.”

Rakowitz often likens art objects to ghosts, “moving freely among dimensions,” as Dorin writes in
The invisible enemy’s exhibition brochure. He “navigates the slippery domain of objects through a concept he calls ‘(g)hosting’ that is inspired by a Duchamp multiple containing the words ‘A Guest + A Host = A Ghost.’

“In that way,” Dorin writes, “an answer to the museum’s dilemma might indeed lie in our own version of (g)hosting: being both host and guest in our institutions, welcoming in and ceding control, sharing our collection with others on equal terms with curiosity and empathy, and allowing objects to speak rather than always speaking for them.”

The “dilemma” Dorin refers to in part has to do with the ethics of WCMA continuing to own and display the Assyrian reliefs. In response to a question about that ethical dilemma during the panel discussion, Rakowitz said:

“When conversations come up about what it means to decolonize a museum, or to address issues of accountability, [we see that] they’re uncomfortable objects, inasmuch as they are teaching objects. They represent a whole lot of trauma in terms of how they got here and what has happened since. I want to be guided by people to whom those objects belong in determining what their future should be. I would like for those people in Iraq to add their voices to a discussion about what restitution or repatriation might look like. I think the end game of repatriation and restitution might be too easy on the West. It lets too much off the hook. Decolonization is a process, not a result. I believe in unsettling, that the discomforts that come from a continuous and ongoing forever conversation about these things are necessary, because the traumas of displacements actually go from generation to generation to generation. I also believe in keeping the traces of problems and failures alive. So, I leave open the possibility that if repatriation is what is most desired, then that is what should happen. But I do believe that a wide-ranging cultural project—this conversation—is even more important, to recognize that there’s something basically good about us being curious about one another. I’m not necessarily against an encyclopedic museum—I have two small children, and I like that they can go and learn things in a place. But [what’s important] is that it’s done consensually, that it is about exchange as opposed to extraction. There’s a reason encyclopedic museums emerge in the West: It’s a colonialist program, a project that comes from conquest.”

The language of conquest is evident in a letter Marsh wrote to Williams President Mark Hopkins a few years after sending the Assyrian reliefs to the college: “My great desire & prayer is that students who look upon the relics of the past may think wisely of time & be led to take a deeper interest in the efforts made to rescue the degraded from the beastliness of their present life, & the eternal dangers impending. Would that every active imagination would hear the stones cry out.”

Bernhardsson asked during the discussion, “Do the relics of the past make us think wisely of time? And what is this wisdom of the present time that these ancient relics are supposed to bring us?”

Answering the question, Rakowitz said:

“I don’t know that that’s happened, really. I often talk about how the looting of the National Museum of Iraq was the first moment of pathos that opened up in the war. Because it didn’t matter if you were for the war or against the war. There was an agreement that this was catastrophic and that the museum held some of the early examples of writing, early examples of urban planning. It was like a primal scene in human history. So that was very useful that it wasn’t just confined as a localized Iraqi loss. It was a loss for all of humanity. But when the outrage around lost objects did not turn into an outrage about lost lives, I found that infuriating. The West attaches a lot of value to these objects. What happened in the 1840s created situations in 2015 of these iconoclasms and the state-sponsored destruction of heritage. I think that we would be really, really naïve to not look deeper at the reason that happens. And so, no, I don’t think we’re really understanding our own times through these objects. But I am also interested in who we are as humans, and our creatureliness, which makes us imperfect. And the fact that our grief sometimes goes into places that are indirect. So sometimes going into a votive statue from Mesopotamia and letting it be a votive for our grief is maybe understandable from a psychological point of view, but I’m not so sure that’s where it should end.”

Michael Rakowitz’s visit to Williams was sponsored by Thomas Beischer MA ’96.

An Unbreakable Cycle—Commentary from panelist Alison Acker Gruseke ’82

The ancient city of Nimrud sat 20 miles south of present-day Mosul. Built circa 1200 BCE, and then vastly renovated around 850 BCE by Ashurnasirpal II, King of Assyria, the site was excavated beginning in 1845. When British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard started turning up fantastic relics (two of which were gifted to Williams by the missionary Dwight Whitney Marsh, Class of 1842), Layard joined what Alison Acker Gruseke ’82 called “an arms race among the great powers of the Old World.”

Gruseke made her comments during a panel discussion in November with conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz, whose exhibition The invisible enemy should not exist frames WCMA’s reliefs.

Many such reliefs were, in Gruseke’s words, “spread like potato chips around New England by missionaries. They were often broken up to make shipping easier.” Indeed, those in WCMA’s collection bear the marks of such splits—observers can still see the cracks where the panels were bonded back together upon their arrival at Williams.

Gruseke, a scholar of the Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, is a visiting instructor at Yale Divinity School and has taught several Winter Study courses at Williams that center on the two Assyrian reliefs in WCMA’s collection, contextualizing them within an understanding of the politics, religion, gender dynamics and culture of the Neo-Assyrian period.

Both reliefs feature figures with human bodies, though one of them has a bird head. “They come from a tradition of ancient wise men who can protect people from malevolent spirits,” Gruseke said. “They were all around the palace, guarding entryways, hallways and corners. They’re generally winged to show that they’re deities, though we don’t know why some are bird headed.”

Understanding Artfare—Commentary from panelist Kirsten Scheid

When Napoleon Bonaparte seized Rome in 1796, he stripped nobles’ homes of statuary, paintings and relics. “That collection is what constituted the core of today’s Louvre Museum,” said anthropologist Kirsten Scheid, who holds a joint fellowship at Williams’ Oakley Center and the Clark Art Institute.
Scheid talked about this so-called “artfare” as well as “aesthetic profiling” during the November panel discussion with conceptual
artist Michael Rakowitz.

Aesthetic profiling “starts with the presumption that art is a universal category all humans have the capacity to make, recognize and cherish in the same way,” Scheid said. “It therefore becomes grounds for advocating oppression against those who do not meet a desired profile.”

Bonaparte’s actions drew international outrage that led French artists and scholars to publish a treatise asserting that Romans were “lazy,  superstitious barbarians who neither respected nor deserved their treasures,” Scheid said. She added that the shift of artworks from Rome to Paris meant that “Rome ceased to be the center of art and was relegated to being the cradle of art. Paris became the city of light, the obligatory training ground for generations of artists until World War II.”

A similar scenario is playing out in Iraq, which Scheid became interested in when the U.S. invaded in 1991. Iraq once provided free art education and was a site of “flourishing art making,” she said. After the war, though, a generation of highly trained artists began reproducing mainly Orientalist pieces they knew would sell. “This is how people could live in Iraq under siege,” she said.
The 2003 looting of the National Museum of Iraq likewise led to artfare and aesthetic profiling. Because there was a market for the pieces from the museum, they were stolen by people desperate to survive. The U.S. government simultaneously promoted a story—thanks, Scheid said, to a video clip of a teenager stealing a single vase—that Iraq had very little valuable art. In Scheid’s retelling, this was enough to “warrant a proper military occupation.”

“Emptying the National Museum of Iraq was [eventually] mourned—but as a loss for humanity, not as a loss for contemporary Iraqis,” Scheid said. “Enter artfare.”—Julia Munemo