When the family of artist Michael Rakowitz's mother left Iraq for America in 1946, a journey of alienation and confusion began. The challenges were aplenty. How does one embrace a new culture? How does one define one's complex identity in a world reduced to black and white, good and evil, love and hate?
"In the United States an Arab Jew is a political impossibility because the state of Israel has hijacked and erased the term," explains Rakowitz, 40, whose thick curly dark hair and long, nuanced explanations give him the air of an intellectual (he teaches art theory and practice at Chicago's Northwestern University),
After his mother became ill with cancer last year, Rakowitz began to think about the meaning of memory and culture. "I was thinking about losing my mother and losing this language, losing one's memory, losing one's mind, losing history," he says.
These questionings prompted Rakowitz to create Dar al Sulh, his recent art project in Dubai. Initiated by curators from the Moving Museum and Traffic, Dar al Sulh was a week-long pop-up restaurant that served traditional Iraqi-Jewish dishes based on Rakowitz's grandmother's recipes, relics from the days when food from this culture was still being served.
"You are eating a dying language from the plate of a ghost," announced the invitation to the restaurant, which hosted themed conversations and the project Tuning Baghdad, where Regine Basha featured a mix of documents on Iraqi-Jewish musicians.
For Dar al Sulh, the artist followed a process similar to the Spoils project, where he purchased porcelain looted from Saddam Hussein's home during the American occupation and used it to serve dinner at Park Avenue, an upscale American restaurant. The plates were subsequently seized by the American State Department and sent back to Iraq. This time he tracked down and bought 20 dishes that had once belonged to Iraqi-Jews. He served the meals, which included kubba bamya (an okra kubbeh) and a rice-stuffed chicken that is specific to the Shabbat meal, on these historically loaded plates.
"I'm interested in making the experience of dining more profound," explains Rakowitz, who is notorious for another food-related project, Enemy Kitchen, where he serves traditional Iraqi dishes prepared in lorries by Americans under the orders of Iraqi refugees. "There's a certain symbolism to the meal itself and the different elements.
"I'm also interested in what happens after the meal," continues the artist, "when digestion occurs - all these different elements to the concept of eating food and creating encounters around eating. The experience is unpredictable, but it's also a way of addressing the fact that what people are seeing in front of them is a situation that can only last for the time of the meal.
"When eating a meal of this nature and recognising that it comes from what is now an absent tribe in Iraq, there's an intimacy with that disappearance which is powerful; and taste and smell can bring back certain memories and emotions. It can be positive, holistic and progressive, but it can also articulate antagonisms. And that's healthy too. It's better to have a confrontation than to have bubbling resentment. I'm trying to erode overwhelming narratives in a way that can be poetic."
Poetry, politics, conceptualism: Rakowitz defies the norms and boundaries of contemporary art, creating complex, multilayered works that extend both in time, space and impact. He takes art out of the museum and into the public realm, bringing it together with architecture, activism, social interventions, sculpture and performance, tackling urgent questions about power and the construction of social, political and historical truths.
While a young Rakowitz growing up in New York was wary to claim his mother's heritage, he became politically engaged at the start of the first Gulf War, as he began his life as an artist.
He studied at the State University of New York in Purchase, where he was influenced by the work of Allan Wexler, who collects art, architecture and landscape design in conceptual propositions. During the two years he attended the graduate programme in Public Art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he studied with the artists Krzysztof Wodiczko and Dennis Adams. Like them, he became interested in giving shape to otherwise unbuilt or archived projects, participating in the creation of an alternative narrative.
During his short but prolific career, Rakowitz has built portable and inflatable homeless shelters in major American cities (paraSITE), recreated looted antiques from the National Museum of Iraq using recycled food wrapping (The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist), opened a shop to sell dates imported from Iraq despite the embargo (Return) and dispatched lorries selling Iraqi dishes across the world (Enemy Kitchen).
In each case, the works demanded painstaking research, archival skill and a solid grip of logistics. Most cases also involved clashes with the authorities, tensions between those participating in the experiences and, most importantly, the dissemination of information about a forgotten or marginalised subject.
"I'm interested in art intersecting with design and utility," explains the artist, "but also in the way I can transgress those things. When something is useful, it's at an intersection between problem-solving and trouble-making. For example, paraSITE performed a real function but also makes a community that is invisible visible. It also serves as a critique of the city - it agitates an issue that the city wants silent. It doesn't solve a problem, but creates a problem above a problem."
However, Rakowitz does not believe that art should always be openly political.
"I absolutely think there's something radical about evading politics and doing work that moves into the realm of speechlessness in terms of being understood," he says. "Art can be useful but it should also resist being useful. It can be rebellious in its uselessness. It's very personal."
Referencing Hans Haacke's belief that "it is naïve to assume that artworks made without a political intent lack a political dimension" the artist adds that "even though we may not be driven by politics, we make art in a frame of time that speaks to politics. It's very important to leave it all open."
Shirine Saad is a New York-based editor and writer.