Storytelling: On the work of Michael Rakowitz

Commissioned in 2009 by Afterall (Issue 21, Summer 2009), for the journal’s section ‘Contextual Essays’, this text addresses storytelling in contemporary art through the work of American artist Michael Rakowitz. Here is an excerpt, and you can download the complete essay as a PDF here:

[...] The horticulturist Roy M. Nixon traces the origins of date culture to 3,000 BC in what is now southern Iraq, a region that has remained the most important centre of date culture in the world. Of course, Iraq was far from my imagination when we drank the sweet date shakes at the roadside stand in Coachella. We were kids at the time – a time, in fact, when the US supported Saddam Hussein and his country’s nascent war against Iran. But a couple of years ago, while drinking a homemade date shake in my Brooklyn apartment in New York, it was a different story. The dates I was savouring this time had come directly from Iraq. I had purchased them from Davisons & Co., an art project in the form of a shop established by Michael Rakowitz.

His family history was one of the inspirations to realise this project. Rakowitz’s grandfather was an Iraqi Jew who emigrated to the US in 1946, bringing with him the tradition of making date syrup. After his grandfather’s death, Rakowitz and his family had to buy the syrup. It wasn’t the same, of course, and it wasn’t from the family’s homeland either. Things had changed. The political situation in Iraq had turned at the start of the 1990s, with the US government now against Iraq in support for Kuwait. UN sanctions had shut down nearly all trade with Iraq, and even when the embargo was lifted in 2003 importing and exporting from there has not been exactly feasible. [...]