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Lost Iraqi art to soar over London thanks to Evanston sculptor

Evanston artist Michael Rakowitz poses at the National Gallery in London next to his winning design entitled "The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist." The 15-feet-tall replica of an Assyrian winged-bull destroyed by Islamic State militants in Iraq in 2014 will soar over the tourists in London's Trafalgar Square beginning in March. | AP

The vision of Evanston artist Michael Rakowitz, a replica of an Assyrian statue destroyed by Islamic State militants in Iraq in 2014 will soar over tourists in London’s Trafalgar Square starting early next year.

The 15-feet-tall statue is of a lamassu — a human-headed, winged bull. Rakowitz says it reflects the “mass migration that’s happened out of Iraq and Syria in the past few years” and is a “kind of placeholder for those lives that can’t be reconstructed and for those people who have not yet found refuge.”

His sculpture is a continuation of “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” series, a decade-long recreation of nearly 700 of the over 7,000 archaeological artifacts still missing after being looted, stolen or declared missing from the National Museum of Iraq.

It’s a project that Rakowitz, a professor of art at Northwestern University, predicts will outlive him and his north suburban studio, as thousands of artifacts are still missing and more are being lost every day in archaeological sites throughout Iraq and Syria.

Using databases from the University of Chicago and Interpol to get exact dimensions of missing works, he and his team work with recycled Middle Eastern food packaging and Arabic newspapers to create versions of the original pieces.

He says he hopes his lamassu sculpture will draw attention to some of the staggering human and cultural costs of ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

Rakowitz is one of two winners of the Fourth Plinth competition that grants winning artists the right to exhibit a contemporary art work in Trafalgar Square for about 18 months.

London’s Fourth Plinth was erected in Trafalgar Square 1841 in for a never-completed equestrian statue. Since 1999, it has been occupied by a series of modern artworks.

Rakowitz felt fate intervened as he was putting together his submission.

“When the city of London sent out its prompt inviting me to propose something, it said that the plinth itself measured 14 feet in length, and I was simultaneously doing research on the lamassu that had been destroyed by ISIS in Nineveh, and that was exactly 14 feet,” Rakowitz says. “So it seemed as though that is what had to go there.”

His latter-day lamassu will be created out of between 3,000 and 4,000 pressed, empty Iraqi date-syrup cans, highlighting the once-thriving Iraqi date industry that’s been decimated by decades of war.

Lost art works, and the cultures they represent, are a lifelong obsession for the 43-year-old grandson of Iraqi Jewish emigres. Generations of Rakowitz’s family embraced their cultural identity even after being forced to flee Baghdad in the 1940s. Being an Iraqi Jew was presented to Rakowitz as “something normal but something that had tragically disappeared.”

After hearing that the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, Rakowitz felt as if his “entire art history had collapsed.” That sense of loss was further compounded two years later when watching video of the looting of Baghdad’s Museum of Iraq.

“It didn’t matter if you were for the war or against the war,” he says. “This was something that everyone could agree upon was unacceptable and tragic. And it was a problem for all humanity, not just for Iraq.”

Michael Rakowitz at the National Gallery in London after his design entitled “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” was chosen for one of the next two Fourth Plinth sculptures in Trafalgar Square. | AP

Claire Davies, the Metropolitan Museum’s assistant curator for modern and contemporary art from the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, says Rakowitz’s work connects the destruction “to what is happening outside of that space and to the people around that work of art.”

Rakowitz’s replica pieces have been acquired by major museums from around the world, including the British Museum, according to Davies. The Metropolitan Museum currently has nine pieces from “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist.” His work also has been widely exhibited in the Middle East.