The Iraqi lamassu bull takes up residence in London’s Trafalgar Square
Dislocated from it natural habitat, the iconic, centuries-old, human-headed lamassu bull has been raised onto the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in London, its home for the next 24 months.
Inspired by British artist Marc Quinn’s mission to “research histories that are not front and centre,” artist Michael Rakowitz celebrated his “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” sculpture as a ghost of the past, introducing to the British public Iraq’s Mesopotamian heritage.
I watched the unveiling anxiously as a British-raised, Baghdadi-born Iraqi, who, like the winged-lamassu bull, resettled in a place far from that I call home. The creator, an American-Iraqi artist of the Jewish faith, stood shoulder to shoulder with London Mayor Sadiq Khan as he tore back the black shroud beneath which the lamassu stood erect.
From the artist’s perspective, the aim is not simply to dazzle audiences but to challenge the invisibility of Iraq’s disappeared artefacts absorbed into the lucrative market of looted goods. Like lost items that wash up on beaches, out of the 15,000 artefacts stolen 15 years ago from Iraq’s National Museum, some have been recovered but the full collection is yet to be restored.
Against the backdrop of London’s grey-washed skies; the figurine stands defiantly, arresting the gaze of passers-by with its glistening coat of armour made from 9,000 recycled date syrup (dibis) tins. Their incorporation into the project, the artist said, extends beyond the plinth “into cupboards and bellies.”
In this context, protection emerges not in the form of blast walls or security checkpoints but by a timeless staple of Iraqi cuisine; dibis. Although dibis is a struggling commodity due to the diminishing economy of date farming in Iraq, the cultural and socio-economic importance of Iraq’s date palm lives on.
The plinth concurrently nods to the Assyrian dynasty whose palaces housed bulls 5 metres high as they guarded entrances, watchfully and gracefully, adding to its layers of cultural meaning.
The bull’s reinstatement following the Islamic State’s destruction of the Nergal gate in 2015 can, therefore, be read as an act of recovery and remembrance with an important message to transmit. Even if Iraq’s ancient artefacts never fully return, Rakowitz’s recreation leaves behind “a cultural-trace” in memory of human and cultural loss, he argued.
At the symbolic level, many Iraqis abroad may look to the lamassu statue as the guardian angel of the country’s fading memories — once the protective deity of Assyrian kings and their palaces. Iraqis abroad also know too well that the longer things are absent for, the likelier collective amnesia becomes, driving the 44-year-old artist “to resurrect what was dehumanised.”
“Forgetting enables comfort,” Rakowitz said in defence of his artistic impulses that spawned “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist,” which he began in 2007, reconstructing 8,000 of Iraq’s looted items. His art responds directly to the violence of war and occupation but unobserved pilfering and overlooked theft of artefacts, though daily realities in Iraq, fall outside the project’s artistic scope.
The question of “what successive Iraqi generations think” and what meaning they might read from the artist’s rendering was one Rakowitz expressed interest in. The internet enabled users worldwide to learn about the landing of the lamassu in London but greater interest has been generated by diaspora circles than those back home.
When asked by Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow if visiting Iraq is something Rakowitz has ever dreamt of, he spoke against using “the vulgarity of the American passport” to exercise a privilege other Iraqis have been denied.
During his conversation with Snow, the risk of commodifying disappearing cultures in today’s hyper-consumerist age or the limits of artistic resistance was raised by an audience member from Iraq.
As an artist, Rakowitz spoke of two responsibilities his work upholds. Cultural education of a country few understand beyond the spectre of war that looms across the region, as the first, and the need to be the “purveyor of discomfort,” the second, to look past the rose-tinting of news coverage to keep alive Iraq’s bittersweet past.
For Rakowitz, the lamassu is both “a monument and an admonishment” and like people, artefacts, too, rise and fall.
Responses from Iraqis, whom I spoke with to gauge feelings about the project, were so diverse they could not be catalogued. Joy topped the list — enabling people to regain access to happy but dusty memories from the past — but sorrow followed closely behind.
Bigger concerns occupied individuals from communities that dot Iraq’s Nineveh plains. They expressed indifference but said they felt relief to see Iraqi relics protected inside Europe’s safe houses, whether the plinth or ornate museums halls.
“Hospitality and hostility share the same root” after all, Rakowitz stated.
The project has restored some of Iraq’s cultural radiance dulled by drawn-out warfare. A great deal more needs to be done to restore looted items, protect archaeological dig sites and revive date farming to its former glory.